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PSNI chief resists Sinn Fein calls for unarmed police force

Published 06/06/2007

Northern Ireland's top police officer resisted demands for an unarmed force today as Sinn Fein questioned him in public for the first time.

Republicans challenged Chief Constable Sir Hugh Orde and his senior command team during their debut on the new-look Policing Board in Belfast.

No voices were raised, but Sir Hugh was swift to reject Sinn Fein representative Alex Maskey's assessment that he has ``robocops'' patrolling neighbourhoods with guns.

Stressing the urgency of shifting the Police Service of Northern Ireland towards becoming routinely unarmed, Mr Maskey wanted to know what steps the force was taking to make it happen.

The South Belfast MLA insisted one of the Good Friday Agreement's objectives was to end the days when all officers in Northern Ireland are equipped with guns.

But Sir Hugh insisted it was never likely to happen.

He told the 19-member authority no other UK forces operated completely without weapons.

``The notion of an unarmed police service is quite frankly a non-starter,'' he said.

``Currently my assessment is that we are where we need to be.

``I have no plans to start removing guns.''

Sir Hugh's position briefly threw him into confrontation with Mr Maskey.

Making clear his opposition, the Sinn Fein man declared: ``Almost every officer is armed.

``Most of these officers carry these arms not from a security point of view, but from a cultural one, as a personal protection weapon.''

Despite the significance of Sinn Fein's arrival on the Board, following it's historic decision in January to end decades of opposition to Northern Ireland's police and justice systems, the 90-minute session was relatively muted.

Mr Maskey and colleague Daithi McKay - the party's third member Martina Anderson was unable to attend due to other business - challenged senior officers as they had pledged to do without any heated exchanges.

Later, however, the party insisted that some of the most critical work would take place behind closed doors.

``We tabled a number of questions for the PSNI Chief Constable to deal with including the lack of co-operation with inquests into a series of killings in Belfast and Tyrone, the lack of movement towards an unarmed service and the continuing under representation of Catholics in senior positions,'' said Mr Maskey.

``While public sessions like the one today are important, particularly to allow members of the public to ask questions, much of our work will take place on the committees."

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