The Irish Times view on the PSNI’s new chief constable: a big test for Simon Byrne

The significant threat still posed by dissident republicans is just one of the thorny issues that will confront the new head of police

Simon Byrne, who has taken up duty this week as chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), faces a range of challenges that will test all of the skills he has acquired during 35 years as a police officer in England. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Simon Byrne, who has taken up duty this week as chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), faces a range of challenges that will test all of the skills he has acquired during 35 years as a police officer in England. Byrne held high rank in the Metropolitan, Merseyside and Manchester police before being appointed chief constable of the Cheshire Police. He was exonerated of bullying charges in that post and was the highest ranking officer to apply for the PSNI vacancy.

The significant threat still posed by dissident republicans two decades on from the Belfast Agreement is just one of the thorny issues that will confront the new chief constable. Last month the New IRA planted a bomb under the car of an off-duty PSNI officer. The incident demonstrated that in spite of widespread public revulsion at the murder of Lyra McKee in April the organisation remains intent on violence.

At present only about 32 per cent of police officers are Catholic and the indications are that this number is declining

A related issue is the investigation into almost 1,200 deaths during the Troubles. Within the PSNI these inquiries, which involve 60 detectives, are regarded as a drain on resources which could be better used to combat current threats.

The PSNI would prefer to hand the cases over to a new, independent Historical Investigations Unit as suggested under the 2014 Stormont House Agreement. Unhappiness with the slow pace of dealing with these legacy issues, combined with the threat posed by dissident republican violence, is one of the reasons put forward for problems in attracting Catholic recruits to the force.

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At present only about 32 per cent of police officers are Catholic and the indications are that this number is declining. With the PSNI set to recruit about 500 officers this year, Byrne has an immediate challenge to improve the level of recruitment in the nationalist community.

As well as the problems of the past, the new chief constable will have to deal with massive issues that will be thrown up by Brexit. With the October 31st deadline approaching and the prospect of a hard border becoming ever more likely, a new set of serious policing challenges looks inevitable.