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Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)

The PSNI replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary in 2001.

A row of police vans in Northern Ireland
The Patten review recommended a more representative police force for Northern Ireland.

What are the origins of the PSNI?

The Police Service of Northern Ireland was created in 2001 as a successor to the controversial Royal Ulster Constabulary. As policing and justice were not devolved to the new Northern Ireland assembly and executive until 2010, the new arrangements were implemented by UK ministers in the Northern Ireland Office.

Its creation followed the recommendations of the review by the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland, 19 chaired by former Conservative cabinet minister Lord (Chris) Patten, established after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in 1998. That agreement had noted the need for “a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole.” The review – which reported in 1999 – made 175 recommendations designed to deliver that, and said that it had applied five tests to all its recommendations:

  1. Does this proposal promote effective and efficient policing?
  2. Will it deliver fair and impartial policing, free from partisan control?
  3. Does it provide for accountability, both to the law and to the community?
  4. Will it make the police more representative of the society they serve?
  5. Does it protect and vindicate the human rights and human dignity of all?

The review noted that while overall policing was relatively highly rated in Northern Ireland, there was a big gap in perceptions between the communities, with more than 80% of Protestant/unionists saying they were satisfied with the police compared to under 50% for Catholic/nationalists.

How is the PSNI governed?

The Patten review recommended the abolition of the old Police Authority and its replacement by a Policing Board 20 with 10 political representatives from the NI assembly (allocated by the same D’Hondt method used for allocating ministerial positions in the power-sharing executive) and nine independents. The Police Authority had been directly appointed by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland and the intention was that the new arrangements would provide for democratic accountability while the legislation also tried to clarify responsibilities. Patten also emphasised the importance of public meetings of the Board to achieve transparency, which had been absent under the Police Authority.

Independent members are appointed by the Northern Ireland justice minister, but at various points when the devolved institutions have collapsed, the UK Northern Ireland secretary has had to take powers to appoint.

How is this related to devolution of justice and policing in Northern Ireland?

The clear intention in both the Patten review, and the original terms of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was for these justice and policing functions, that were initially exercised by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, to be devolved as soon as the situation allowed  to the Northern Ireland executive and assembly.

Justice and policing were finally devolved in 2010. It was agreed at that time that, unless and until the parties agree otherwise, the minister of justice, unlike all other ministerial posts, would be elected by a separate cross-community vote of the assembly rather than be one of the posts allocated when an executive is formed. The need to win cross-community support means of the three justice ministers so far, two – David Ford and most recent, Naomi Long – have come from the Alliance party and the other – Claire Sugden, in post 2016–17 – was an independent unionist.

Why is the composition of the force such a big issue?

One of the reasons for the lack of confidence of the Catholic/nationalist community in the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was that it was overwhelmingly dominated by Protestants. In 1999 Patten noted that fewer than one in ten RUC officers were Catholic (8.3%). Many in the Catholic/Nationalist/Republican community regarded the RUC as at best sectarian, and at worst complicit in illegitimate actions against their community. Many in the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist community object strenuously to that interpretation of the past.
Patten therefore established a rule to try to redress the imbalance. Qualified candidates would be placed in a pool and recruitment would then follow a 50:50 pattern until such time as around 30% of the force were Catholic. Those special measures were lifted in 2011.

Data from an FOI request in 2023 21
suggested that 31.7% of PSNI officers are now Catholic, but that Northern Ireland-born Catholics represented only 26.4%.

Why did the PSNI chief constable resign in September 2023?

Two separate incidents 22 seem to lie behind the resignation of the chief constable of the PSNI, Simon Byrne, on 4 September.

First, a massive date breach from a poorly handled FOI request revealed the personal details of all serving PSNI personnel, putting all at potential security risk. There are particular fears for Catholic officers who might be targeted by dissident republicans who now have that data – after the Provisional IRA’s ceasefires, dissident republican groups have targeted PSNI officers and there have been several murders or attempted murders of serving personnel. So the threat is real.

Second, the chief constable was under pressure when then High Court found he had unlawfully disciplined two probationary officers over an arrest at a Troubles commemoration event. It was alleged he had been pressured into doing so by Sinn Fein politicians, although they denied this.

These led to the DUP sending a motion expressing no confidence in Byrne to the Policing Board, which then appointed his deputy, Mark Hamilton, to step up as acting chief constable. However he was also implicated in the unlawful disciplinary proceedings and his appointment led the Police Federation, representing serving police officers, to pass a motion of no confidence in him, 23 along with fellow senior PSNI leaders.

Why is this so sensitive?

Data breaches in any security organisation would be sensitive but that is particularly acute in Northern Ireland given the continued heightened state of alerts and the attempted murder earlier in the year of an off duty police officer John Caudwell. The disclosure of personal details potentially endangers people working for PSNI.

PSNI was created with the aim of allowing policing by consent across both communities and the police and its leadership need to be seen to be acting in a way that enables them to continue to command cross-community support. Allegations were that Byrne’s initial decision to discipline was aimed at preventing Sinn Fein from removing support for the PSNI.

What happens next?

The PSNI has launched a recruitment exercise for a new chief constable which it hopes to conclude in November. The Policing Board is reported to have chosen a preferred candidate for the position of interim chief constable, 24 which will have to be confirmed by the secretary of state.

If the executive has not been restored, and there is still no justice minister, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland would have to use or extend his powers under the current selective direct rule legislation to approve an appointment by the Policing Board.


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