Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Rather than giving us his opinion on political developments, Simon Byrne should focus on building support both in the community and, most crucially, among the PSNI rank-and-file

The new Chief Constable's in-tray was already bulging with dissidents, illegal bonfires and Brexit. He can now add the prospect of an outbreak of 'blue flu', writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Simon Byrne
Simon Byrne
Trouble in the New Lodge
The Apprentice Boys’ parade in Londonderry
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Simon Byrne didn't exactly take up his new job as PSNI Chief Constable at the start of last month in the most auspicious of circumstances. There was no government at Stormont. Brexit was looming on the horizon. Dissident republicans were once again flexing their muscles. The Twelfth was just days away.

It's far too early to pass a definitive judgment on how George Hamilton's successor is handling these challenges, but Simon Byrne certainly faces a perfect storm in the coming months, with a no-deal Brexit now looking all-but-unavoidable on October 31, with all the implications that has for the border - not forgetting a possible return to direct rule, or even another Assembly, or general election. Perhaps both, God help us.

The last thing he needed was the threat of strike action by officers, but that appears to be exactly what the 56-year-old Englishman may be facing in the coming weeks, with PSNI officers understandably upset at plans - revealed in this newspaper today - for an overtime ban that would even require them to work on their rest days; a necessary sacrifice, bosses clearly believe, since the force is 800 officers short and in no position to take on additional duties.

They'll now be doing so at normal, rather than overtime, rates, which many PSNI officers need to pay the bills. It looks very much like robbing Peter to pay Paul, following a recent ruling that thousands of officers and civilian staff are owed money going back 20 years. What the PSNI giveth with one hand, it seems set to taketh away with the other.

The effect on police morale could hardly be more detrimental. They can't be on constant call. They have families and need downtime to recharge from stressful situations.

Thinning out their pay packets at the same time as dragging them away from home would be a cruel double-whammy.

Having a Chief Constable who seems deaf to some of the connotations of his language can't help either.

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Yesterday morning, Simon Byrne appeared, once again, on radio, this time on Irish station RTE, to wax lyrical about his fears if no-deal goes ahead. He has every right to be concerned. The Chief Constable's job is to anticipate problems and then ensure that the men and women under his command are ready and fully resourced to deal with them.

But Byrne went much further, telling RTE that he doesn't want to see "a return to a paramilitary style of policing", post-Brexit.

The words were even stronger than those he had used on BBC Radio Four's Today programme earlier, when he lamented the problems that a hard border might bring with the words: "If we get this wrong, we could drift back to almost a paramilitary style of policing." In the space of a few hours, that "almost" had gone.

Is Simon Byrne suggesting that the old RUC was a paramilitary organisation? Words matter. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the primary meaning of "paramilitary" is for a group "organised like an army" but which is "not official and often not legal". That's certainly how it's been generally used in Northern Ireland.

There were undoubtedly problems with the RUC, some of which were addressed by Lord Patten's commission.

The force was not accepted by many in the nationalist community. It had been responsible for a number of controversial killings. There were question marks around collusion with loyalist terrorists.

Nonetheless, most fair-minded people in Northern Ireland, of whatever political persuasion, always acknowledged that there was a huge difference between the legal RUC and illegal groups such as the IRA and UVF. The RUC had rogue sectarian elements. Those other groups were the rogue sectarian elements.

It's true that the RUC were armed and could only patrol certain areas with Army support, but everyone knew who was to blame for that.

The PSNI are still armed, for the equally obvious reason that it would be irresponsible to send them out defenceless while there are groups actively intent on murdering them.

All the same, no one but the most extreme dissident would suggest that this made the RUC a paramilitary force.

Why Simon Byrne has chosen to go down this road, only he can answer. But he has made a number of political statements relating to Brexit and the border since becoming Chief Constable which raise similar concerns.

When the Northern Ireland Policing Board set out earlier this year what was needed in a new boss, it mentioned looking for an "exceptional leader with an ability to drive and deliver organisational change".

A candidate was sought who could "bring a strong vision of service delivery to the community", who had "an ability to build strong relationships" and possessed "sound business skills and acumen" to run a organisation with a budget of £800m. What it didn't ask for was someone who would bang on about Brexit every five minutes to journalists.

The requirements did state that the new Chief Constable should be "able to operate with high levels of political astuteness", but it was made clear that the successful candidate should do so only in order to make policing more efficient and effective, not to influence the political conversation. The police must be seen to act and speak in a non-political way.

Simon Byrne was actually asked on RTE whether he had specific information, or knowledge, that no-deal would increase dissident activity. He admitted that his warnings were founded on "speculation and some assumptions", rather than hard intelligence.

It's surely not asking too much to expect a Chief Constable to resist the urge to publicly speculate and make assumptions based only on the "emotional anger" he thinks dissidents might feel at leaving the EU come Halloween?

Police chiefs must be operationally independent of politicians, but that means they should also back off on matters that are the proper business of elected politicians.

Anything else risks dragging the PSNI into an increasingly fractious political landscape, in which Brexit and the border have become dangerous battlegrounds - and ones that are split largely on unionist/nationalist lines.

Rather than giving his tuppence-worth of thoughts on ongoing political developments, the Chief Constable would be better advised to concentrate efforts on building support, both in the community and, crucially, in the force itself.

Police officers cannot be expected to be at their best when they're worried about having enough money at the end of each month to look after their families. The threat of strike action in the coming months if an overtime ban is imposed suggests that Simon Byrne has his work cut out.

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