PSNI chief under mounting pressure from unionist politicians

Simon Byrne facing into political storm in wake of policing review in south Armagh

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne did not make any public comment following sharp criticism on Wednesday . File photograph: PA

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne did not make any public comment following sharp criticism on Wednesday . File photograph: PA

 

Northern Ireland Chief Constable Simon Byrne is expected to come under increased pressure from unionist politicians over a review of policing in south Armagh when he appears before the Policing Board on Thursday.

DUP Minister for the Economy Gordon Lyons called on Wednesday for the Chief Constable’s resignation. His party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, said Mr Lyons spoke for the party though stopped short himself of asking the Chief Constable to quit his post.

Mr Donaldson said he intended to outline his views to Mr Byrne in person at a separate meeting on Thursday and told reporters he believed the Chief Constable had “lost the confidence of unionists”.

The 170-page review of policing in south Armagh, which was published by the Police Service of Northern Ireland on Tuesday, made 50 recommendations aimed at addressing issues of “trust, confidence and the prevailing influence of the past” as well as the “style and tone” of policing in the area.

Mr Donaldson said his party was “very concerned” by the proposals and was “very clear there is not unionist support or consent for many aspects of what is proposed in this report.

He would make clear to the Chief Constable, he said “that he should not press on regardless and implement this report in circumstances where I don’t believe he has the confidence of unionists”.

The Ulster Unionist Party has also raised concerns and called for “detailed clarification” from the Chief Constable.

Mr Byrne was defended by the North’s Minister for Justice, Naomi Long, who said the Chief Constable had made clear he wanted to work towards building confidence right across the community.

“I think it’s up to unionist leaders to give him the space and time but also the support to do that. And I don’t think constantly calling for his resignation is a good way to build confidence in his leadership,” she said.

The report was welcomed by Sinn Féin and the SDLP, who said it was “long overdue”.

However unionist politicians have condemned some suggestions, including the closure of Crossmaglen police station and that police should “explore relocating police memorials to an agreed space in the station away from public locations and main thoroughfares”.

They have also criticised the recommendation that a bilateral North-South policing agreement should be explored “with the aim of facilitating joint rather than parallel policing operations” between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána, which “at minimum” should enable cross-Border “hot pursuit” between policing jurisdictions.

Sinn Féin reaction

Sinn Féin MP Conor Murphy said he could not “for the life of me understand this knee-jerk reaction, the assumption that if we come to an agreement with police for an improved policing service that that’s somehow to the detriment of unionists. They really need to grow up.”

Ulster Unionist Assembly member Mike Nesbitt said the proposal to explore relocation of police memorials was “unacceptable” and he intended questioning Mr Byrne at the Policing Board meeting as to “what he means by referencing ‘joint policing’ with the Garda Síochána and checkpoints that aren’t reminiscent of the Troubles”.

In a letter to Mr Byrne Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister called on him to resign and described the report as a “new low” which he claimed represented “obnoxious politicking in the promotion of all-Ireland policing” and “plumbed the depths when it suggested that memorials to murdered officers should be hidden from public view”.

The Chief Constable previously faced calls from some unionists to resign after it was announced that Sinn Féin politicians who attended the funeral of former IRA member Bobby Storey would not face prosecution despite Covid-19 rules on public gatherings.

The Chief Constable on Wednesday night confirmed he had given an assurance that there would be “no removal of memorials to fallen colleagues from any operational police stations” and he would provide more detail on this and other issues raised in the report at Thursday’s meeting of the Policing Board.

Separately, Mr Donaldson is also due to meet the Tánaiste on Thursday as part of a two-day visit to the North by Leo Varadkar to talk to politicians and business leaders.