Stormont’s justice minister has insisted his decision to change the criteria for recruiting the PSNI’s next chief constable was correct and appropriate.
Political rivals have portrayed David Ford’s move as a “solo run”, claiming his alteration to eligibility requirements was announced without the backing of the NI Policing Board, the body responsible for selecting Matt Baggott’s successor.
Last night First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness intervened and used their powers to refer Mr Ford’s decision to the Executive for review.
Mr Baggott, who was appointed in 2009, last week informed the board that he will not be seeking a contract extension when his term of employment ends in September.
In the past, only senior officers who had served for at least two years at assistant chief constable rank in a police force outside Northern Ireland would have been eligible to apply to replace him.
But Mr Ford yesterday announced he was changing that from mandatory to “desirable”.
Critics have questioned the timing of the minister’s move, given that deputy chief constable Judith Gillespie announced her retirement only weeks ago, citing her inability to go for the chief’s post as she had not served two years elsewhere.
During Assembly question time, Mr Ford defended his actions, claiming his decision gave the board more latitude in its search for a new chief.
He also insisted he had no reason to apologise to Mrs Gillespie as his move meant she was eligible to become chief.
“The post of chief constable is a vital one and my sole intention has been to ensure the process of appointing a chief constable is governed by fairness, common sense and equality,” he told MLAs. “I have no agenda beyond that.”
He denied claims that he did not consult the board, noting that the issue of changing criteria was raised with him by the board last May.
The minister said he subsequently consulted a number of other relevant bodies.
He said when it became evident that a political consensus had not been reached on the matter, he had to make the decision himself.
“It falls to me therefore in accordance with my powers and regulations to reach a view and issue a determination,” he said.
The minister said removing the mandatory requirement meant he ended up with less power over the appointment, and the board with more.
He said it was still up to the board to set its own criteria for the post, and members could decide that service elsewhere was still an essential element on the CV of any candidate.
But he said advice from the Equality Commission indicated that the current legislation was indirectly discriminatory as it impacted unfairly on certain groups, such as women or people who had dependants living in Northern Ireland.
“What I am absolutely certain of is that my decision was the correct decision, my decision was appropriate, proportional and has actually not created the difficulties that a number of people, who were ill-informed about the circumstances, appear to have highlighted,” he said.
“On that basis I would be very happy to go to the Executive meeting on Thursday and explain for the benefit of ministers, as indeed I will be putting in the Executive paper over the next day or so, the details of what has been done, explain why it has been appropriate, why it is my role as justice minister to carry that out and explain that in general to ministers.”
Mr Ford added: “I have certainly no intention of creating any damage to policing through this row.
“I didn’t start this row, I carried out my statutory duties in a way that was entirely appropriate to enhance the role of the board in carrying out its statutory duties. That is an issue I will be explaining to the Executive.”
In response to Mr Ford’s announcement yesterday, DUP board member Jonathan Craig claimed the minister had shown a “lack of judgment”.
“Chief constable of the PSNI is an extremely sensitive appointment and policing in Northern Ireland is a contested area of public policy,” he said.
“One does not simply wander into such an area and start making arbitrary changes at whim: they need to be discussed and agreed upon in a consensual fashion among the parties.”
Sinn Fein Policing Board member Gerry Kelly had accused Mr Ford of embarking on an “unwelcome and ill-timed solo run”.
“He has taken this decision without seeking the agreement of the Executive or indeed the Policing Board whose responsibility it is to recruit to this position,” he said.
“The timing of this announcement comes only days after the current chief constable, Matt Baggott, said he would be stepping down and weeks after the deputy chief constable, Judith Gillespie, cited the two-year rule as one of the reasons why she was stepping down. It has taken the Policing Board by surprise and has angered many.”
The SDLP also criticised Mr Ford, but said Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness were also “out of order”.
“Each and all of them are usurping the role of the Policing Board,” said SDLP MLA Alex Attwood.
“The authority of the Policing Board must be jealously guarded.”
He added: “The action of the minister for justice is a challenge to the authority of the Policing Board. However, it compounds the error for the issue to now be called into the Executive. To do so means a precedent is established. The precedent is that matters that are the responsibility of the Policing Board end up being matters decided by the Executive.