Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Too often, PSNI chief Byrne allows himself to become the story... he should earn his £207,489 salary by fighting crime and leave the tweeting to others

In 2020 the Chief Constable must show some understanding that he is not in Cheshire any more. His one job - just the same as the politicians - must be to show that normalisation is working, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Simon Byrne (centre) outside Crossmaglen PSNI station, a picture that he posted on Twitter
Simon Byrne (centre) outside Crossmaglen PSNI station, a picture that he posted on Twitter
Drew Harris
Sir George Hamilton

Einstein famously said that the definition of madness was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The Policing Board should take a hint.

Out of the last five appointees to the office of Chief Constable, three of them have been Englishmen with no previous experience of policing in Northern Ireland.

Still, everyone keeps acting surprised that the PSNI remains stuck in a rut, satisfying no one, with a new Chief Constable who seems to stumble haplessly from one PR disaster to the next.

Simon Byrne's Englishness isn't the problem as such. It's his apparent ignorance of how people in Northern Ireland think and his failure so far to learn on the job that's doing the damage.

The photograph that he posted on Twitter on Christmas Day in which he was seen posing with heavily armed officers outside the PSNI station in Crossmaglen is just the latest example.

Some of the outrage which this picture provoked from nationalists may have come across as manufactured for effect.

For people still willing to defend terrorism, republicans do an awfully good imitation of maiden aunts reaching for the smelling salts when they see something they don't like.

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Funny, isn't it, how they only ever get angry at the sight of guns in the hands of those legally entitled to carry them?

That didn't make it any less of a revealing - not to mention avoidable - blunder.

The Chief Constable defended his actions by saying that the picture showed the reality of policing at a time when dissidents and others still wish harm on PSNI officers.

He's not wrong about that. There were more than half-a-dozen murder attempts on the police during 2019, one of which took the life of the journalist Lyra McKee.

It should still be possible to acknowledge the grim reality of policing in Northern Ireland while simultaneously being clued-in enough to know that such a post would cause some unflattering commentary.

What did Simon Byrne think nationalists were going to do when they saw his message on Twitter - like, retweet and then quietly get on with the rest of their Christmas?

One awkward possibility is that he didn't think about it at all. He simply uploaded the picture with no intimation that it would be divisive, falling victim to a medium which abhors nuance and regularly drags the reputations of those who use it carelessly - and that of the organisations which they represent - into disrepute for absolutely no benefit whatsoever.

Byrne isn't the first to fall foul of social media. His predecessor Sir George Hamilton was forced to apologise after taking to Twitter to tell an officer who'd complained about the pressures of the job to "dry your eyes".

The message ought to be clear by now. Get. Off. Twitter.

Or, if you must use it, at least do so in a bland, formal way to post news and official announcements.

Too often Byrne has allowed himself to become the story. Over Christmas, he even replied to a joke that BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan made about his mum's cooking.

This really isn't what people are looking for in a Chief Constable. They'd much rather that the new man earned his very generous salary of £207,489 (plus benefits) by combating crime and left the tweeting to the luvvies and other attention-seekers.

There's nothing wrong, in principle, with appointing outsiders to important and sensitive roles. Former PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Drew Harris hasn't put a foot wrong since being appointed the new Garda Commissioner in 2018.

The problem is with Byrne himself, who, in a much shorter period, has repeatedly demonstrated a contrary habit of opening his mouth and inserting his own foot right into it, not least when he suggested in September that the children of dissidents might be taken from them.

Everyone wants a tough response to the threat of terrorism, but there's an important difference between being strong on law and order and just being bizarre.

In a rare flash of self-insight Byrne admitted at the time that "my enthusiasm to talk in soundbites has caused a distraction". Unfortunately, having recognised that tendency in himself, he appears to have done nothing to correct it.

When he took up his new job in July, just before the marching season, the new Chief Constable was said to have two challenges that were outside his control: Brexit and how to deal with the past.

The one big issue that was in his gift was rebuilding trust with the nationalist community, who make up just 32% of serving officers.

Instead of putting his head down and concentrating on that task, he persists in diving head-first into divisive issues such as Brexit, giving interviews to warn one minute about the danger of a land border angering republicans and the next of a sea border inciting loyalists.

He's probably using the threat of Brexit to make the case for more manpower, but as a general rule the police should strive to stay out of politics.

That's doubly true in Northern Ireland.

The PSNI's job is to serve the community regardless of who's in power or where the post-EU border is drawn.

Political parties cannot wash their hands of this muddle. In the past they could complain that the Chief Constable was imposed on them by Civil Service recruiters.

Nowadays they have an input into the appointment through the Policing Board and the latest newcomer was the unanimous choice this time around. This is their responsibility - and they need to own it.

Someone with the ear of Simon Byrne should definitely have a friendly word in it, either way.

If former Secretary of State Karen Bradley can be criticised for arriving here without even knowing that nationalists and unionists vote for different parties, there's no reason why the Chief Constable should be immune from scorn for being equally untutored in local realities.

Next year he really does have to show some understanding that he's not in Cheshire any more.

His one job, same as the politicians, is to show that normalisation is working.

At a time when Northern Ireland needs some self-confidence it's just not good enough that we're continually fobbed off with incomers, who not only aren't up to the challenge of creating a new and collective future, but who, at some level, don't appear to be trying that hard.

Politicians and police alike, they come for a few years, then go as soon as their time is up, taking their pensions and perks with them.

Perhaps next time the Policing Board will put its faith in a Chief Constable who'll still be around when the decisions that he or she takes finally come to fruition.

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