Belfast Telegraph

Justice Minister Naomi Long: I can't promise extra funding or better wages for struggling police

Justice Minister Naomi Long in her office yesterday
Justice Minister Naomi Long in her office yesterday
Police recruits
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

The new Justice Minister has admitted she cannot guarantee the PSNI more funding, even though she is well aware of the challenges it is facing.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said that a number of issues, including key policing policies, were "on the radar".

In her first major interview since being appointed to the new Stormont Executive, she discussed issues ranging from police recruitment and pay parity for officers to upskirting, legacy issues and paramilitarism.

She was speaking the morning after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's whistle-stop visit to Northern Ireland.

The Conservative leader was subsequently criticised for failing to confirm how much of a cash injection the UK government was prepared to hand over as part of the new Stormont deal.

Sitting in her office in the Justice Department, Mrs Long told this newspaper there was no guarantee that local police officers would receive the 2.5% pay rise awarded to their English and Welsh counterparts last September.

Only yesterday the Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI) said the pay situation could "be remedied at a stroke of a pen".

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PFNI chairman Mark Lindsay added: "I would ask the new minister to show that the restoration of devolved institutions actually counts for something with prompt and decisive action."

However, Mrs Long told this newspaper that would not be happening.

"We're not going to be able to make any commitments at this stage because negotiations are still going on with the government around the financial package," she said.

"The police is about 70% of the Department of Justice's budget and we have to manage that very carefully.

"There's also a commitment in terms of talking to the Chief Constable around trying to increase the number of police officers.

"We have to balance that out around all the other demands around the Executive table, so it's not a commitment I can make on my third day (in the job), but it's obviously something I'm aware of. It's on my radar."

The deal that restored Stormont included undertakings to increase the number of PSNI officers by 600 to the 7,500 envisaged in the Patten reforms.

Asked how any additional officers would be paid for, Mrs Long replied: "As it stands, there isn't funding. Those are the targets we are working towards and we will work with the police.

"We're drilling down into this new tranche of cash to see how much of it is new money and how much of it is already allocated to other things.

"It will be a matter of negotiation with Executive colleagues. Nothing is set in stone yet."

Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin has called for a return to 50-50 recruitment for the PSNI, while Chief Constable Simon Byrne has highlighted under-representation among groups other than Catholics. Mrs Long said she felt compelled to "take advice" on the thorny issue.

"I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but I don't think that 50-50 recruitment is a good thing," she said.

"It causes issues with people feeling that there's an element that is discriminatory and it's a very blunt tool for solving the problem.

"I would like to look at why the issues around recruitment are emerging."

Mrs Long has taken over the justice portfolio from Claire Sugden, who served in the Executive from 2016 until its collapse in early 2017.

She has now added Executive minister to her impressive and ever-growing CV, which spans the political spectrum of councillor, MLA, MP, MEP and Alliance leader.

Her brief is wide-ranging, also taking in courts, sentencing powers and legacy.

Upskirting was recently made a criminal offence in England and Wales. A proposal to introduce a similar change in the law in Northern Ireland has already been made by the Department of Justice. It follows the high-profile case of a teenager who took upskirt pictures of two teachers at a school in Co Fermanagh and was found guilty of committing acts of outraging public decency.

Mrs Long said: "It (an upskirting law) is on the radar. There's a wider piece of work around sexual offences that's going on in the department with the Gillen review.

"It's one of my priorities to see that wider (sexual offences) package through. Upskirting fits into that overall strategy. It's something that we would want to proceed with, but we need to go through the formal consultation to make sure that we do it right."

While the public awaits further government action on the controversial issue of the legacy of the Troubles, Mrs Long said she believes "you can't simply draw a line under the past".

"We're talking about people who are bereaved and who still feel that loss acutely," she added.

"Where justice is possible, people ought to be able to access justice. Where justice may not be possible, through lack of evidence or the passage of time, people should be able to access the truth.

"That's always been my view, but it's now dependent on the Secretary of State and how he legislates for that at Westminster. The Historical Investigations Unit was envisaged as the way to take those issues forward and I think that's the best way forward."

Mrs Long is just one of a growing number of local female politicians taking on high-profile roles. In the new Executive there is a 50-50 spilt between men and women when the Junior Ministers are included, but Mrs Long said: "It doesn't feel at all strange. It's becoming more normal. It's a good start."

Before starting our interview yesterday, the Alliance leader accepted her new job had a learning curve but added: "I enjoy a challenge."

Her new position will certainly be that and her success will likely depend on the scale of any budget cuts, which made her Alliance predecessor David Ford's job so challenging.

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