Belfast Telegraph

Timing could hardly be worse: verdict on Northern Ireland prison chief’s departure

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

The resignation of the head of Northern Ireland’s prisons has come at the worst possible time, members of Stormont’s justice committee have claimed.

Edinburgh-born Colin McConnell (51) is expected to leave the £100,000 post of Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) director general in May — after only one year in in the job — to take over as chief executive of the Scottish Prison Service.

His shock departure comes days after another top NIPS official, change manager Colin Bennett, stepped down, which has prompted questions from politicians on the future stability of the service.

“It sounds like there are serious difficulties within the Prison Service and that the public is not being given the full picture,” said Ulster Unionist Basil McCrea, who sits on the justice committee.

“Is the Northern Ireland Prison Service in freefall?

“Justice Minister David Ford has obviously a lot of work to do in order to develop confidence in the staff of the Prison Service and ensure there is proper management for the staff, who are a very dedicated group of employees.”

Concerns have been raised that Mr McConnell’s exit could disrupt sensitive negotiations over the controversial prison reform package.

The DUP’s Paul Givan, chairman of the justice committee, said it “could not have been timed at a worse point”.

“It comes at a time when hundreds of officers are leaving and hundreds of others are coming into the organisation. At this time you need continuity, authority and leadership. But all of that has been undermined.

“In terms of the reform package it could not have come at a worse point for David Ford, but it also provides an opportunity for him to take stock of where the service is going. There is concern that the service is not bringing staff along on this programme of change. He needs now to reflect on all the concerns and ensure that he does not rush the appointment of a new director general, but ensures that he gets the right person for the job.”

Mr Givan said the issue would be raised when NIPS’ head of human resources appeared before the committee tomorrow.

Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney urged the minister to appoint a new prison director general urgently.

Meanwhile, Mr McConnell said his job had been both challenging and rewarding.

“Over the past year huge strides have been made and that has only been possible because staff across the service have rallied behind the need for reform.

“The decisions that have been made have not been without pain but have been necessary to the overall objective of delivering fundamental change across the Prison Service.”

Mr Ford said Mr McConnell had made a significant contribution to implementing the changes.

“Colin has left his stamp on the Northern Ireland Prison Service and has put in place the necessary foundations for delivering fundamental reform,” he said.

Story so far

Colin McConnell was hired last January to lead radical reform after the service was heavily criticised in a series of inspection reports. During his tenure around 550 prison officers applied to take up a generous redundancy package offered as part of the reforms. About 150 of those will leave at the end of this month, with 200 new officers to be hired.

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