The Policing Board's own chief executive has told it that its decision not to change the criteria for selecting a Northern Ireland top PSNI officer is indefensible, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
The board yesterday voted to reject the Justice Minister's plan to open the next Chief Constable's position up to applicants who had not served two years at senior rank outside Northern Ireland.
The issue will now go back to the Stormont Executive for a final ruling.
The Policing Board's majority decision, made behind closed doors, flies in the face of advice given to members by Sam Pollock, its chief executive.
In a six-page report obtained by the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Pollock appears to suggest that any appointment could be open to a legal challenge.
In the document – entitled Criteria For Appointing the Chief Constable of the PSNI – Mr Pollock pointed out that the requirement to have served two years in an outside force had been dropped everywhere else in the UK and had never applied in An Garda Siochana. This means, he wrote, that "those staff in Northern Ireland who would meet the general criteria excepting this one would be very uniquely disadvantaged".
Mr Pollock gave short shrift to arguments that it would be wrong to change the criteria "because the current process of appointment had begun".
"My advice is clear on that matter – no process has begun... the appointment process is only being considered at this meeting," he countered.
Mr Pollock denied that Justice Minister David Ford had acted without consulting the board.
He pointed out that in January last year the board issued a Press release mentioning the two-year rule and saying that if the Department of Justice wanted to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK it would accept that.
The board later discussed the situation at a number of meetings but reached no view.
Mr Pollock saw this as evidence that "the minister made every reasonable effort for the matter to be considered".
Last night a Policing Board spokeswoman said: "In a private discussion the board agreed by a majority vote that the current criteria should continue for this competition. That is, the two years rule should stay. It now goes back to the Executive for decision."
Asked if board members had considered any legal risks, she replied: "They considered the risks in taking that position and obviously whatever decision is made there is always the potential of a legal challenge."
DUP board member Jonathan Craig applauded the board's decision.
"I am pleased that the Policing Board has rejected the Minister of Justice's attempt to meddle in such a sensitive public recruitment process," he said.
STORY SO FAR
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott will formally resign in March and must go by September. Under current rules his replacement must have served two years at senior level in another force. However, Justice Minister David Ford proposed making this requirement desirable rather than mandatory. A political row ensued, with other parties claiming Mr Ford had no right to make such a unilateral decision. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness intervened and used their powers to refer it to the Executive. Mr Ford insisted he acted on legal advice.