Belfast Telegraph

Dissidents making hay from Stormont stalemate: Simon Byrne

Warning: PSNI chief Simon Byrne
Warning: PSNI chief Simon Byrne

By David Young

Northern Ireland's police chief has warned political leaders that the powersharing impasse is creating a vacuum that extremists are exploiting.

Simon Byrne urged Stormont politicians to "do what needs to be done" to get devolution back up and running.

He has written to the leaders of the main parties to stress the need for political decision-making on key issues facing the PSNI.

As he flagged the continued severity of the threat posed by dissident republicans, Mr Byrne said "extreme ideas" were being given space to develop in the absence of powersharing.

The police chief revealed that the PSNI had made 138 arrests for terrorist offences during the year so far.

He said he had "nowhere to go" to get answers on big issues such as policing legacy investigations and modernising the PSNI.

On the day when healthcare staff were striking across the region, Mr Byrne also noted the "inertia" that was impacting wider public services.

"I recognise how important a time it is at the moment for Northern Ireland as politicians do the hard work to see if it's possible to get an Executive back together. I wish them well on behalf of the PSNI," he said.

Asked to assess the impact of the three-year political deadlock, Mr Byrne said: "I think that it creates a vacuum that lets all sorts of other things fill it, whether it is extreme ideas or the inertia of the management of public services, which is playing out at the moment.

"I have got nowhere to go to for answers on some of the big issues that affect how we police.

"I would welcome the introduction of devolution and a working government so that we can get answers to the big questions."

Asked what his message for the politicians would be, Mr Byrne said: "Take this chance to get round the table and do what needs to be done to get us back working within an Executive, so I can bring forward our plans with the Policing Board to modernise the PSNI and make Northern Ireland safer."

Mr Byrne also praised the leader of Catholicism in Ireland for raising concerns about the falling number of police recruits from his community.

However, the chief constable said he still believed it was not the time for the reintroduction of the controversial 50/50 recruitment policy.

Archbishop Eamon Martin called for the return of 50/50 to ensure that Catholic and Protestants again join the PSNI in equal numbers.

After an initial surge in Catholic intake following peace process policing reforms, the numbers have been falling again - a trend in part attributed to the ongoing threat posed by dissident republicans.

While Mr Byrne said he would not rule out a return to 50/50, he added that the representation problems facing the PSNI were wider than that single policy.

He highlighted that pay rates were also a problem in attracting new recruits.

"I applaud the comments from the archbishop that has put this issue back in the public domain. I know there's a live debate needed about how we get the PSNI more representative of the communities we serve," he said.

"I think the debate needs to be wider than 50/50. Yes, I recognise we need to recruit more Catholic officers, but also we need to make the PSNI more diverse and reflective of communities in general.

"We need to recruit more women, we need to recruit more people from working-class loyalist communities and indeed reach into other communities, like the LGBTQ community, to make sure that the people that police our streets reflect the people who are on those streets."

On 50:50, he added: "I wouldn't rule it out because it think it would be unwise to give away something and close down that sort of avenue.

"I actually think this is an emotive issue and it's one for politicians to resolve. I can give advice. My advice at the moment is I don't think we need it. We have a new campaign that starts in a few weeks and we will track progress to see if we increase the representation across all those fields as we progress."

He said legacy issues and historic allegations of police collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, were also a "blocker" on Catholic recruitment.

Mr Byrne added: "Some of the feedback I get is, whether you're Catholic or a member of other communities, we don't actually pay enough as a new employer.

"In a vibrant economy where people make choices, we pay a new police officer just over £20,000 a year. We want to see how we can improve that offer over the years ahead."

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