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A huge year for policing

By Staff Reporter

TALKS aimed at restoring the devolved institutions get under way later this week and we have already rehearsed what needs to be done by the parties here in order to ensure that any resumed Executive and Assembly are fit for purpose and possessed of the requisite commitment to justice and rights to allow them to last. But away from Stormont it’s clear that the PSNI and its still relatively new Chief Constable have a lot of work to do in order to undo the damage done in what’s been a year of reversals and missteps for an organisation that appears to have lost its direction and purpose. Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s been a disaster for the PSNI vis a vis its relationship with the nationalist community. The support the new policing arrangements were given to allow devolution to forge ahead was contingent on a number of factors, most of which have either fallen by the wayside or are being flagrantly disregarded. At the most basic level, the urgent requirement for the policing service to reflect the community it serves has never been met –on the contrary, it now appears to be in reverse with calls growing for a return to 50-50 recruitment. Coming two decades after the formation of the PSNI, this is desperately disappointing and places a question mark over the very concept of fair and balanced policing. But to make things immeasurably worse, the performance of Simon Byrne in the top job has led many to question the wisdom of his appointment. Any casual observation of recent history will reveal that there is no appetite within the nationalist political family for knee-jerk targeting of new PSNI Chief Constables. But when the PSNI needs to be held to account it is held to account in a robust and positive manner – the legacy issue being a recurring source of contention. But in the seven months since Mr Byrne took on the role, we’ve seen an extraordinary series of what we might charitably call unfortunate events – some cynical and deliberate acts, some common or garden incompetence – which have been incredibly debilitating to law and order in the north and which mean that the coming year is one in which his ability to see out his contract is going to be put under very serious scrutiny. First and most worrying is Mr Byrne’s increasing determination to use the PSNI as a bulwark against progress on the aforementioned legacy issue. His decision to go the Supreme Court to appeal adverse rulings on legacy investigations has seen him park the PSNI tank on the lawn of victims and survivors. His extraordinarily brutish threat to take children away from their parents quite frankly left some experienced observers here open-mouthed in astonishment. And his handling of summer bonfire issues – in particular the Avoniel and New Lodge stand-offs – underlined concerns around whether he’s possessed of the necessary insight and tactical nous to lead the PSNI forward. And to put the tin hat on an annus horribilis for policing here, Mr Byrne decided to pose for a Christmas pic with heavily armed officers at Crossmaglen barracks, to the consternation of nationalist politicians. Entirely unsurprising; entirely unacceptable. Possibly fixable; possibly terminal.

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