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New PSNI chief Byrne compared to 'Darth Vader' in unfounded claims by former staff

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Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

There can't be many freshly-installed police chiefs who've had to start off their new jobs in Northern Ireland or anywhere else knowing they'll have to shake off hugely publicised comparisons with Star Wars villain Darth Vader.

But Simon Byrne - to many the surprise choice as the fifth Chief Constable of the PSNI - has already had to endure social media jibes about the analogy with the light sabre-wielding baddie which hit the headlines during a recent misconduct hearing in England.

The case against the career policeman who started off as a constable in London 36 years ago was eventually thrown out by a panel. But in-depth coverage of the controversy is still only a Google click away.

The then Chief Constable of Cheshire Constabulary had been suspended from his post two years ago after being accused of bullying and humiliating staff between May 2014 and March 2017.

It was said he was "dysfunctional", had a "disregard for his subordinates", and that he treated junior officers and staff like "roadkill". But Mr Byrne strongly denied the 72 allegations and said he never intended to cause upset or worry. The hearing was told he handed pictures of Dad's Army characters to officers after he became angry when flooding made him late for work.

However, the panel found the incident was an example of Mr Byrne's "approach to leadership" and it was wrong to attribute "malevolent intent" to it.

Mr Byrne had moved from the Met in London to become Cheshire's Chief Constable in 2014. The misconduct hearing was told that he applied for the post of Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police a year later and had mood swings for a fortnight after he failed to get the job.

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Mr Byrne's defence barrister said his client had succeeded in driving the Cheshire force forward even though he had "flaws, bad days, grumpy days and one or two occasions when impatience perhaps got the better of him".

Last year Mr Byrne was cleared of misconduct after the panel said the case - which cost £350,000 in public funds - "could and should have been avoided" and found that no allegations of gross misconduct or misconduct were proved.

Mr Byrne said: "I am very pleased to have been totally exonerated of any wrongdoing".

Policing Board’s Anne Connolly makes announcement
Policing Board’s Anne Connolly makes announcement

In a statement released after being cleared, he also said the process, described by his lawyer as unfair, had been an ordeal that wasted "precious public money" and he added that "in some ways, it still feels like upside down justice as I have lost my vocation after 35 years of public service".

The Cheshire police branch of Unison said some of its members had "shown immense courage and bravery to come forward" and that the branch was "extremely disappointed" by the outcome.

A police source said Mr Byrne, whose Cheshire contract expired while he was suspended, had been urged by friends not to let the misconduct allegations sour him or stop him seeking a new job somewhere at the top of policing.

And the PSNI, said the source, would seem to be the perfect fit for Mr Byrne, and vice versa.

Mr Byrne joined the Met as a constable in 1982 and he moved to Merseyside police three years later.

He was promoted to Assistant Chief Constable in 2006 before moving to Greater Manchester Police in 2009 as Deputy Chief Constable.

Then came a return to the Met in 2011 as Assistant Commissioner for Territorial Policing, before he took over at Cheshire Constabulary in 2014.

The Policing Board here is clearly confident that Mr Byrne is the right man for the job, which carries a salary of £207,489 and will be for a fixed term of five years, with the possibility of an extension.

To underline its decision to appoint Mr Byrne, a board statement pointed to Mr Byrne's "wealth of strategic and operational policing experience" during his years as a policeman - 21 of them as a Chief Officer and eight years of them as a Chief Constable.

Simon Byrne
Simon Byrne

Policing Board chair Anne Connolly said Mr Byrne had assured them he had been the subject of "unfounded allegations".

"He has been totally exonerated and the last time I looked that meant the person was innocent, so the board had absolutely no problem in appointing him," she added.

As well as the odd snide remark on the internet, Mr Byrne has also received many more congratulatory messages wishing him well on what is effectively a comeback for him.

He'll already know he isn't going to be short of major challenges on this side of the Irish Sea.

Among the toughest ones will be the ongoing threat posed by dissident republicans now and into the future, and the crisis of how to deal with the legacy of the past.

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