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Northern Ireland's police boss urges progress on Troubles legacy issues

Published 02/11/2016

George Hamilton was marking 15 years of the PSNI
George Hamilton was marking 15 years of the PSNI

Northern Ireland's police chief has warned politicians it would be a "huge mistake" to stall progress on new structures to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

George Hamilton stressed the need for resolution as he addressed a seminar in Belfast marking the 15th anniversary of the formation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

Proposed mechanisms to address the needs of victims, and an accompanying multimillion-pound Government funding package, are stuck in the starting blocks due to a political wrangle linked to the potential non-disclosure of state papers on national security grounds.

The package agreed by Stormont leaders and the UK and Irish governments, which includes a new investigations unit, a truth recovery mechanism, an oral history archive, and enhanced funding for Troubles related inquests, will not become reality until the logjam is overcome.

The national security dispute is primarily between the UK government and Sinn Fein. However, the Democratic Unionists are refusing to sign off on the funding boost for legacy inquests until all the other issues are sorted.

A number of Stormont Executive ministers, including Justice Minister Claire Sugden, were in the audience of the seminar at Queen's University as Mr Hamilton emphasised the need to find a way forward.

"Work continues on the Historical Investigations Unit and the other mechanisms for dealing with the past which were laid out in the Fresh Start Agreement," he said.

"So there are signs of optimism as we refocus to the future, but it will be a huge mistake - and I say this with Executive ministers present - it will be a huge mistake to stall progress on these proposals - a mistake that neither policing nor our society can afford."

Mr Hamilton said current public confidence ratings in the PSNI of over 80% would have been "unimaginable" during the Troubles.

However, he highlighted that there remained some communities where trust in policing "remains some way off".

"By far and away, the greatest erosion of community confidence in policing relates to a series of well-known, but unresolved post conflict issues - dealing with the past; parades and protests; and flags and symbols," he said.

The region's top officer added: "In the absence of any alternative political and societal resolutions, these issues continue to be left at the door of policing and the broader criminal justice system. They sap community confidence and drain budgets."

During his address, Mr Hamilton also pledged to do more to attract more recruits from the Catholic community. He also stressed the need for more female officers within the ranks.

"Like all other Police Services the PSNI still faces challenges in achieving a Service that is truly representative of the community," he said.

"Women, young people and members of the Catholic community continue to be under-represented in PSNI.

"I am committed to doing all that I can to resolve these challenges."

The Reflecting And Refocusing: 15 years On seminar was jointly hosted by the PSNI and its oversight body, the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

Policing Board chair Anne Connolly said: "Fifteen years on policing remains a key part of the fabric of our society and continues to progress and evolve. Within the now established policing architecture we have a model of accountability that has stood the test of time and provides an oversight framework that remains essential for confidence building in the community.

"Whilst we must protect the fundamentals of our policing reforms into the future, we must also adapt to the ever-changing policing landscape. There are factors that focus our minds now that we hadn't even comprehended 15 years ago or thought would shape or impact our society.

"Changing crime, changing policing demands, changing technology and most importantly changing budgets. There are also new opportunities to work more collaboratively but we must also make sure that policing is properly resourced to meet the demands now being faced so that our community is safe and protected from harm."

Sinn Fein Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard and DUP Junior Minister Alastair Ross also attended the event at the Riddel Hall.

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