Northern Ireland’s top police chief resigned on Monday after a series of scandals, raising questions about police leadership in an area where law enforcement has long been a controversial topic, and sparking calls for further changes within the police.
Pressure has been mounting for the official, Northern Ireland Police Chief Simon Byrne, to resign after a major data breach last month. In response to a freedom of information request, the names, ranks and workplaces of every serving officer and civilian employee were accidentally published online, in a force that remains a target for militant groups , many of whose members keep the details of their work confidential.
Mr Byrne successfully resisted demands to resign after the data incident, but his position grew increasingly fragile after August 29, when a court ruled that a decision by police leaders to discipline two junior officers in 2021 was to break the law. , but to appease critics of Sinn Féin, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The party, once the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, favors unification with the Republic of Ireland and has for decades had a strained – and deadly – relationship with law enforcement authorities in the region.
Junior officers had arrested a man in February 2021 for allegedly breaching coronavirus restrictions and disorderly behavior, after he attended a commemoration of a 1992 attack in which he and five others were shot and wounded people had been murdered. None of the officers “had the slightest idea that the rally was a memorial anniversary”, they told the court. The man was later released without charge.
The party’s top official in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, tweeted at the time that the police force was “turning a blind eye” to loyalist paramilitaries – those who engage in violence as part of a decades-long struggle to maintain the region’s status as a country. part of the UK – “while targeting those who lay flowers on the birthdays of their loved ones”.
A judge has determined that law enforcement disciplined the officers amid fears Sinn Féin was abandoning its support for the police, citing contemporary notes from Mr Byrne in which he described the episode as a “defining moment” and wrote about “comments that SF [Sinn Féin] can leave [the] Police Council.
On Monday, Mr Byrne announced his resignation after an emergency Police Board meeting. “The past few days have been very difficult for everyone involved,” he said in a statement. “Whatever the good and the bad, now is the time for someone new to lead this proud and resolute organization. »
Policing has long been controversial in Northern Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, its police force for decades after the partition of Ireland in 1922, came to be associated with repression against the minority Catholic population, particularly during the decades of sectarian strife known as the ” Troubles” from the late 1960s through the late 1960s. 1990s.
The current force was created in 2001, three years after the Good Friday Agreement, the agreement signed to end the fighting, which established an independent commission to review all areas of policing and make recommendations.
While the RUC was highly militarized and predominantly Protestant, the current force has striven to be more representative of the community it oversees – even if due to a “substantial” terrorist threat from paramilitary groups opposed to the process of peace, it is the only police force in the country. the United Kingdom whose members regularly carry firearms.
But building trust between the police and the community has been a difficult process, especially among Catholics, because of the historic conflict.
Mr Byrne had also faced criticism from within the police force in recent weeks.
Following his decision to step down, the head of the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, which represents police officers in the region, said there had been a major disconnect for some time between the leadership of the organization and active police officers.
Liam Kelly, who chairs the federation, said in a statement that after the court’s ‘damning’ decision had ‘seriously damaged’ Mr Byrne’s credibility and authority, the police chief’s position had become untenable.
“Morale has never been lower in the service,” Mr Kelly said. “There is a serious and worrying divide between those in leadership positions and the men and women from all walks of life in the community who form the grassroots. »
He added: “Whoever succeeds Mr. Byrne will have a mountain to climb to address cultural deficiencies, rebuild trust and restore credibility. »
The Northern Ireland Superintendents Association, which represents police leaders in the region, said in a statement that Mr Byrne’s resignation had ended a period of “worrying uncertainty and great concern”. within the service.
“The negativity that has emerged over the past few weeks only undermines the incredible police work being done in communities across Northern Ireland every day,” he said.