Belfast Telegraph

McDonald comments make some on Policing Board fear rejected candidates may sue

Chief Constable George Hamilton
Chief Constable George Hamilton
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald

By Suzanne Breen, political editor

Some members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board fear they could be personally sued by unsuccessful candidates for the PSNI Chief Constable's job.

They last night told the Belfast Telegraph that controversial comments by Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald on who succeeds George Hamilton should have resulted in her party's removal from the selection process in order to prevent future litigation.

However, other board members defended Sinn Fein's involvement in the process and said that excluding the party would be disastrous for the future of policing here.

"Taking Sinn Fein off the panel would mean that the party would not have to support whoever got the job," a Policing Board member said.

"That would seriously harm the next Chief Constable's ability to do the job. It would be putting them in a straitjacket.

The board members were speaking after additional scrutiny measures were introduced in the wake of Ms McDonald's comments.

She was accused of undermining the integrity of the recruitment process when she said she did not have confidence in any prospective internal PSNI candidate.

Mr Hamilton, who was appointed in 2014, is due to retire from his £207,500 a year job in June.

The Sinn Fein president made her remarks in February. Asked if she had confidence in any of the current leadership team to replace him, she had replied: "No, I don't.

"The PSNI's credibility on matters pertaining to legacy is zero, I don't think that happened today or yesterday."

The deadline for applications is May 7. Candidates will be shortlisted a week later and assessments are scheduled for May 23 and 24.

A preference for applicants to have served outside Northern Ireland has also been dropped from the list of criteria.

Independent recruitment specialists have been hired to oversee the selection process.

A senior occupational psychologist will 'dip sample' notes taken by panel members and ask them to justify the marks allocated to shortlisted candidates for the job.

All eight members of the selection panel - three independent board members and five political members, including Sinn Fein MLA Linda Dillon - have signed confidentiality agreements to prevent them publicly discussing the process while it is ongoing.

They will also undergo two days of extra training and perform dummy interviews with senior officers before the formal interviews next month.

But TUV leader Jim Allister claimed such measures weren't enough.

"Sinn Fein should not be on any panel to select the next Chief Constable," he said.

"They have compromised themselves irredeemably. All these cosmetic adjustments do not remove that self-evident compromise."

Former Policing Board member Tom Kelly said: "Appointing the next Chief Constable is the most important decision this Policing Board is ever going to take.

"My view is that its credibility has been damaged and that it should be revamped by the Secretary of State."

Mr Kelly also said that the independent members of the board had to develop "stronger voices" and make themselves heard over the party political members.

One Policing Board member described the additional measures for the Chief Constable recruitment process as "very robust", but said they could reduce the risk of litigation by unsuccessful candidates, not eliminate it.

Another member said: "I am not at all happy. I fear it not only leaves the board open to litigation, but it leaves us personally liable."

But another board member said: "The recruitment process we are adopting is super-tight.

"Of course, there still remains an element of risk regarding litigation.

"But removing Sinn Fein from the selection panel would have caused merry mayhem. It would have delayed the appointment of a new Chief Constable.

"It would have created uncertainty and confusion at a time when policing is already under enough pressure in Northern Ireland. That would play right into the hands of those who want policing to remain controversial here. It is vital that we move forward."

The member said they were satisfied the measures would ensure "a fair process that will result in the next Chief Constable being appointed on merit alone".

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