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Another one bites the dust!

PSNI chief resigns

Policing pillar of Good Friday Agreement in shambles following Chief Constable's departure

05 September 2023

Former PSNI chief, Simon Byrne

The latest scandal to hit the PSNI has led to the demise of the current Chief Constable, Simon Byrne. Unlike the most recent scandal before this, a mass data breach that released the names and roles of the entire workforce that was subsequently acquired by republican groups, the upset had led to the Unionist groups demanding his resignation.

The issue was the offspring of an earlier explosion. A commemoration of the massacre of five Catholics at Sean Graham's bookmakers on the Ormeau Road in 1992 was held in 2021. Two constables tried to disperse the group and ended up arresting one of the survivors of the massacre. Nationalists were outraged, especially as a loyalist masked demonstration in East Belfast the week before, a threat to other loyalist groups, was escorted by the police and no arrests were made.

The storm ended when Byrne announced that the two officers would be disciplined. The issue was revived when the two officers appealed. High Court judge Mr Justice Scoffield ruled that the decision was made to discipline the officers to allay any threat of Sinn Fein abandoning its support for policing.

It worth looking at the judgement more closely. From the legal perspective the police did nothing wrong on the Ormeau Road or in East Belfast. They are covered by operational independence. To overrule them it would have to be shown that they acted in bad faith. On the other hand, Byrne, by considering the Sinn Fein reaction, was illegitimately punishing officers. (No officers were ever punished; the ruling was to remove the supposed damage to their character).

We should look back at the case of Assistant Chief Constable Drew Harris. The judiciary censured him for ruling that loyalist flag protesters were not subject to parades laws because they had not filled in application forms. He was reminded that the judges were there to interpret the law. Harris was cleared on appeal on the overarching principle of operational independence and is now Chief Commissioner of An Garda Síochána in Dublin.

Sinn Féin, and political analysts generally, agree that there was never any possibility of their withdrawal from the Policing Board. So why the loyalist reaction? They keep private, opinions about the most catastrophic data breaches in the history of policing, but explode at the suggestion that the Chief Constable was influenced by his concerns about nationalist support for the police

The Policing Boards illustrate united support for policing. As with so much else in the North, that unity is misleading. The major parties support the police from different perspectives. Sinn Fein wants to preserve the shreds of the Patten reforms that transmuted the RUC into the PSNI, while the DUP want to negate them. The role of the Chief Constable is to convince both they are succeeding.

The Patten Report, which Sinn Féin only accepted with great reluctance, focused on perception rather than reality. The RUCís history of collusion with loyalism was set aside in favour of a new "community policing". A 50% recruitment policy was supposed to bring Catholic recruits up to 30% of the force. The hated RUC Special Branch was to be disbanded. Policing Boards with political representatives were to provide transparency and accountability.

The model has not stood the test of time. The Unionists managed to overthrow the 50% recruitment rule and those recruited complained of anti-Catholic bias. The Special Branch officers retired with massive payments and then many were recruited as civilian advisors, their main task being to investigate collusion and miscarriages of justice that they had been involved in. The British propose a ban on any further investigations and an amnesty for state forces.

The everyday practice of the PSNI involves denying any legal responsibility for removing loyalist flags as means of intimidation, carrying messages of death threats to Catholic families but offering no protection and standing well back as loyalist groups carry out violent feuds.

One of the interesting aspects of the PSNI data breach is that the release went through three departments. The picture is of a moribund and complacent organisation where there is no real oversight. Another aspect of the leak was the insight into roles. A large number of younger recruits are deployed in public relations roles. The core membership seems little changed from the days of the RUC. A very large contingent is seconded to work with the also very large MI5 headquarters. Behind the PR operations is a vast mechanism of surveillance and repression.

In terms of transparency and accountability Sinn Féin held secret meetings of the Policing Board. Where is the transparency here?

The departure of Byrne on the issue of appeasing nationalism is a victory for unionism. They will look for a new chief constable who will take a sterner line, emphasising that the police are a British force in a British country. They will find ready support from a rabidly reactionary British government already tearing up the Good Friday Agreement.

The Sinn Féin slogan when selling the Patten deal was "No to political policing!" The result in the Byrne administration was a leader whose only role was constant political manoeuvring to keep the myth of police reform on the road.

So why is it impossible to wring any criticism or complaints about the police from SF? What they have left is what they have in the defunct Stormont - position without any power. They use this in the ongoing drive to convince Irish capitalism that they can be trusted in a coalition government in Dublin. In the North they have patronage that allows them to reward supporters.

The situation today is stable. A large section of the middle class agrees with Sinn Féin and is the recipients of the patronage. The contradictions that will eventually explode are among working class youth who have a totally different view of the police.

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