Belfast Telegraph

We're shock absorbers, viewed as either heroes or villains: PSNI chief Byrne on dissidents, bonfires and Northern Ireland politics

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Claire McNeilly speaks to Chief Constable Simon Byrne on August 29th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Claire McNeilly speaks to Chief Constable Simon Byrne on August 29th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne talks to the Belfast Telegraph yesterday
Simon Byrne with Belfast Telegraph’s Claire McNeilly
Lyra McKee
Claire McNeilly speaks to Chief Constable Simon Byrne on August 29th 2019 (Photo by Kevin Scott for Belfast Telegraph)
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

Northern Ireland's new Chief Constable has said he learned very quickly that police officers here are either heroes or villains, depending on who you ask.

Simon Byrne also told how policing a contentious Twelfth bonfire in east Belfast during his second week in post was a baptism of fire, representing his first big "test", both "practically and operationally".

And he revealed that the PSNI refused to engage in dialogue with paramilitaries when dealing with the pyre in the grounds of Avoniel Leisure Centre, adding that the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) weren't "calling the tune".

His comments came as part of a wide-ranging interview with the Belfast Telegraph, during which he addressed many significant challenges, including the current security threat to police officers, Brexit, the political impasse in the wake of the defunct Assembly and legacy issues.

Mr Byrne (56) arrived in Northern Ireland just in time for the July marching season and it was to give him precious insights into his new role.

"Avoniel was the first of a series of issues where we have almost been on the precipice from different communities' point of view, where if we go down one path, we're heroes, and if we follow another one, we're villains," Northern Ireland's top officer said.

"I think that's sometimes a constant theme here because of the strongly held beliefs by different communities.

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"Avoniel was the first test for me about how important those issues are culturally, but equally, how you can get drawn into a whole raft of other issues that are a far wider than just dismantling a pile of pallets."

Tensions had been building ahead of bonfires being lit across Northern Ireland on the eve of the Twelfth of July.

The Avoniel edifice had been contentious because tyres had been placed on it to be burnt and it was built on council property without permission.

The following month the PSNI was forced to deal with another controversial bonfire, this time in north Belfast's New Lodge area, as well as a row over an emblem worn by the Clyde Valley Flute Band at an Apprentice Boys parade in Londonderry.

Given the police response to those issues, detractors criticised Mr Byrne for starting his tenure by annoying both sides of the community in equal measure.

But the former boss of Cheshire Police pointed out that the PSNI are "the shock absorbers for a whole raft of other issues".

"I always try and hold true to the notion of fairness and impartiality," he said.

"In some people's eyes, there's a perception that we don't get it right, but we try really hard to work within the law, to remember that we've got be proportionate in what we do."

Using the example of a bonfire, he added: "To some people, if we'd stormed any one of them and ended up in large-scale disorder, that would be seen as a firm message from the police that we're not tolerating anti-social behaviour, whereas to others, we're a bunch of thugs intent on alienating communities."

Any suggestion of the existence of a two-tier system of policing in Northern Ireland was robustly rejected by the police chief with a deft "absolutely not".

"Every day, we try to go back to the principle that we police fairly and impartially," Mr Byrne said. "People will interpret certain things we do in different lenses and you have to accept that.

"If you take the two issues, a march or parade is a completely different policing context to a bonfire.

"No one sets out at the start of their working day to treat one community any different to the other because that has got to be the rubric of how we operate."

Mr Byrne said he was concerned about the ongoing severe security threat over his officers, which remains "real and active".

"There's not one specific call to arms by any individual or group to say we're going to accelerate the pace of our attacks or the ferocity of those attacks, but we do see it as a real and active threat every day," he said.

"There is little doubt that a small number of people from the dissident republican community have a sole aim of killing or seriously injuring one or more of my officers."

Earlier this month dissident republicans tried to lure police to their deaths with a bomb planted in Co Fermanagh, near Wattle Bridge, close to the border.

The writer and freelance journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead while observing rioting in the Creggan area of Derry in April. In June the 'New IRA' claimed responsibility for a bomb under a police officer's car at Shandon Park Golf Club in east Belfast.

"Clearly there are a small number of people with the intent and capability to attack the police in different parts of the country with fatal consequences," Mr Byrne said. "The general concern is of a concerted effort to kill or seriously injure a police officer."

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Executive since January 2017, when the two main parties, DUP and Sinn Fein, split in a bitter row.

Mr Byrne acknowledged the policing challenge due to the political impasse at Stormont, singling out the failure of the justice system as one casualty. "Sometimes the lack of leadership gives you a lack of top cover when you want things resolved," he said.

"Frankly, I think the criminal justice system here is far too slow.

"Whether you're dealing with the most serious of crimes in terms of terrorist investigations or the day-to-day crimes, i.e, domestic violence, the length of time it takes between arrest and conviction is far too long compared to the system that operates in England and Wales. It's ripe for modernisation. On behalf of victims, I'd like to see that system sped up. The return of the Executive to help me do that would be really welcome."

Mr Byrne - who has 36 years of policing experience, with a third of that at high rank - said the PSNI is prepared for Brexit, but stressed there is no indication of a spike in terrorism from October 31 onwards.

"We are looking at a range of different scenarios in relation to the potential for protest in various forms or indeed the acceleration of terrorist attack," he said.

"We've got no intelligence that there's any sense that terrorism will increase rapidly on November 1.

"We're also linked into the policing infrastructure across the UK, so that in the event of a change in the policing situation here or anywhere else, we're able to participate in the response to that." There are currently around 6,750 police officers in the PSNI and Mr Byrne said he needs "at least 600 more".

"If we can get the political support to grow the organisation to 7,500 people, that's a great opportunity to continue some of the emphasis on making sure the organisation is representative," he said.

But he added that he doesn't think "the time is right" for the PSNI to reintroduce the 50-50 recruitment process "because I don't think we need it to close the gap".

The 50-50 process was introduced as part of the Patten policing reforms, and was aimed at increasing the number of Catholic officers in a predominantly Protestant force.

The PSNI replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary in November 2001, and the 50-50 recruitment policy ran for its first 10 years until 2011, during which the number of police officers from a Catholic background increased from 8% to 31%.

Mr Byrne was asked about his plans to address the legacy issue in Northern Ireland, which currently employs 60 detectives looking into 120 Troubles-related killings, given there is no Historical Inquiries Unit in sight.

"The plan is to continue the ask," he replied, acknowledging that the absence of the Assembly is "unhelpful".

"We need the problem taken off us. We need the HIU set up. There was £150m set aside to set it up.

"It would be good if someone unleashed that and we got on with it."

As former Cheshire Police Chief Constable, Mr Byrne assumed Northern Ireland's top policing post two months ago in July, replacing George Hamilton.

He spent most of his career in Merseyside Police, he held senior positions there and at the Metropolitan Police and Greater Manchester Police, before his appointment as Chief Constable of Cheshire Police in 2014.

So why Northern Ireland?

"I've always liked a challenge and I've preferred jobs with pace, momentum, and where there's a bit of a frisson and dynamic," he replied.

"It reminds me a lot of Merseyside, of parts of Manchester, where I've worked in the past. I've no regrets about taking the job and my family has been completely supportive."

And how does he think he's acquitted himself in light of some of the challenges he's faced thus far?

In terms of Avoniel, he pointed out that "there was no serious disorder" and "no one seriously injured".

"There was no headline that then washed through to the following week that potentially could have unravelled years of work around building up the image of Northern Ireland for the golf and all the benefits that have come from that in terms of employment and tourism, so I think that was really positive," he said.

And he also acknowledged that it was a "powder keg situation" for the PSNI in the wake of the UVF murder of local community worker Ian Ogle at the start of the year.

"The last thing we wanted was large-scale disorder that was triggered by the policing response to a bonfire," said Mr Byrne. "Were we in dialogue with paramilitaries? No. Were they calling the tune? No. We had a policing plan."

As regards the other issues, he said there may have be criticism, but stressed that all decisions taken by the PSNI are "finely balanced".

He added: "Some communities will welcome a particular decision and others will criticise us and sometimes in policing here, you've just got to have broad shoulders."

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