North’s Policing Board seeks legal advice on Mary Lou McDonald’s PSNI remarks

NI Equality Commission insists next police chief must be recruited in ‘non-discriminatory way’

There was continuing fallout on Wednesday over Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald’s comment that no one within the senior ranks of the PSNI is capable of taking on the post of chief constable.

The Policing Board, which will decide who replaces chief constable George Hamilton when he retires at the end of June, has sought legal advice about its recruitment process in the wake of Ms McDonald's remarks. And the North's Equality Commission has raised concerns about "political interference".

The DUP leader Arlene Foster also said on Wednesday that Ms McDonald had "compromised" the interview process.

Ms McDonald has stood by her Monday comments when she said she could not identify anybody within the PSNI capable of being the next chief constable.

She issued her remarks after she led a Sinn Féin delegation in talks with senior PSNI members about police failing to disclose to the office of the North’s Police Ombudsman “significant, sensitive information” about Troubles-related killings.

Two of the officers she met were deputy chief constable Stephen Martin and assistant chief constable George Clarke - two potential candidates for the job.

Ms McDonald was warned from several quarters that her comments could jeopardise the interview process.

The chief constable George Hamilton reflected his own concern when he retweeted a post by the Police Federation which stated, “This amounts to extraordinary interference in an open and transparent selection process.”

On Tuesday, in the face of criticism from several parties in the North and South and from the PSNI representative body, the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, Ms McDonald refused to withdraw her comments.

The controversy has posed a dilemma for the North's 19-member Policing Board, which is comprised of nine independents and ten Assembly members from the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance.

Legal challenge

In the process leading to the appointment of Mr Hamilton five years ago the interview board comprised the chairwoman Anne Connolly, three other independent members and a representative from each of the five parties on the board.

Mark Lindsay, head of the Police Federation, as well as a number of politicians warned of a possible legal challenge from PSNI candidates were a Sinn Féin board member to be on the interview panel.

Dr Michael Wardlow, head of the North's Equality Commission expressed concern and wrote to the Policing Board to "remind it of its responsibilities under equality legislation to recruit in a non-discriminatory way".

“Fair employment and equal opportunities legislation are built upon open and transparent practices, free from political interference and based upon the merit principle,” he said.

The Policing Board, which had been preparing for the selection process, confirmed that it is now seeking legal advice about the implications for the interview procedure arising from Ms McDonald’s remarks. It would be making no further comment until it had that advice, said a spokeswoman.

DUP leader Ms Foster described Ms McDonald’s comments as “foolish” and that they had “compromised” the selection process.

“The leader of one of the political parties involved in the panel has made her feelings quite clear and that of course interferes with due process and the panel has now been compromised,” she said.

Sinn Féin Assembly member John O’Dowd accused Mr Foster of “staggering hypocrisy” and referred to how the DUP leader had blocked funding for legacy inquests. He said his party would “take no lectures from Arlene Foster given her track record of actively preventing families from accessing truth and justice”.

Mr O’Dowd said the “heart of this case” was the “PSNI’s failure to provide evidence to the ombudsman on dozens of killings by loyalist death squads”.