Warning over hiring of police chief
Police in Northern Ireland will be hit by crippling inertia if a political row over the appointment of a new chief constable delays or hampers the process, officer representative bodies have warned.
The Police Federation (PFNI) and the Superintendents' Association (SANI), the two organisations representing all ranks in the PSNI up to chief superintendent, have issued a joint statement expressing concern over the search to find Matt Baggott's replacement.
It comes in the wake of a dispute involving Stormont Justice Minister David Ford and his colleagues in the power-sharing executive on his proposal to change the minimum criteria required for applicants.
Mr Ford's plan to scrap the need to have served two years at senior rank in a force outside Northern Ireland would have widened the field of candidates, making many more local commanders eligible.
He said the move was recommended by the Equality Commission.
But the suggestion met with vocal opposition from political rivals, with Mr Ford accused of stepping on the toes of the Policing Board - the body responsible for making the appointment.
Last week members of the Executive voted down Mr Ford's proposal. The Policing Board is due to meet later this week to start the application process.
The PFNI and SANI said there was a need for a "clear, decisive, and expeditious route map" to facilitate a "prompt and trouble-free handover" to the new chief constable.
The organisations' joint statement said: "There is an urgent need to resolve disputes over the selection criteria to be used in the process.
"If differences between the Justice Minister, his Northern Ireland Executive colleagues and the Policing Board are not sorted out, there is a real danger that the uncertainty will significantly undermine confidence both internally and externally in the short term. At a time when we continue to deal with a severe level of threat, protest and dispute on the streets, and the marching season looming, this is something we can ill afford."
SANI president Nigel Grimshaw said: "Instead of a seamless transition to the new person responsible for policing in Northern Ireland, the present wrangling creates the potential for a debilitating effect on the service which will be a distraction from the necessary leadership and direction that is critically required at this time. In our view, that would be hugely damaging not only for the PSNI but also for the entire community."
PFNI chairman Terry Spence said whoever was appointed would have to hit the ground running and overcome a number of hurdles, including a "severely under-strength" force.
"We, therefore, call on all who have input into the selection process of the new chief constable to resolve their differences over the criteria to be used so that there is clarity during the recruitment exercise," he said.
"Any delay in sorting this out will have consequences for the PSNI and the morale of officers at every level.
"Crippling inertia will result if our politicians cannot agree a way forward quickly. These are not insurmountable obstacles, and we would appeal to them to address the issue at the heart of the disagreement - the requirement for candidates to have at least two years experience with another force - with vigour and determination."
Last month a majority of board members voted for the retention of the two year rule, pending the outcome of a final decision by the Stormont Executive.
A board spokeswoman said: "Discussions on the appointment of a new Chief Constable and Deputy Chief Constable for the PSNI commenced at the February Board meeting and members considered the way forward in making these two senior officer appointments, the sequencing of the competitions and time scales for completion.
"The Board has agreed that the competition for the appointment of a new Chief Constable will take priority with arrangements for this post will be progressed first. This consensus decision was taken to ensure there is continuity in the leadership of the PSNI.
"Board Members are agreed that the integrity of the competitions are protected and the supporting appointment procedures now devised meet the highest standards of recruitment policy and practice.
"The appointment process will be formally initiated at the March meeting (6 March) when the Appointment Panels will be considered and approved by the Board."