Northern Ireland’s justice minister has been accused of unilaterally interfering in a key part of the appointment process for the next chief constable.
Minister David Ford faced cross-party criticism at Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration over a proposed rule change allowing more senior PSNI officers to apply to replace the retiring Matt Baggott.
Restricting candidates to those who had spent some time in a high-powered role outside Northern Ireland helped change nationalist perception of the force, Sinn Fein said. Republicans supported its transformation from a mainly-Protestant organisation which spent decades battling the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries to one geared to peace time roles like community policing.
Nationalist SDLP assembly member Alban Maginness told the minister: “It would appear that you acted unilaterally in relation to the proposed change in the minimum criteria.”
He added: “You knew that there was an emerging (political) consensus that there should be no change.”
The PSNI was formed following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which largely ended the armed conflict. It made many long-serving officers redundant and recruited more Catholics to change the demographic of the force and encourage the co-operation of historically mistrustful nationalists.
Policing powers have been devolved from London to Belfast. The appointment process for a successor for Mr Baggott, who steps down in September, begins soon and will be run by the Policing Board of politicians and community representatives.
Mr Ford, who represents the centralist Alliance Party, suggested the mandatory requirements for candidates be changed to remove a clause that they must have served two years at assistant chief constable rank in a force elsewhere, which ruled out many potential applicants from within the PSNI.
The Justice Minister wants to make this “desirable” rather than mandatory.
He fended off allegations at Stormont that he had been naive and described the change as modest.
He received significant guidance from the Equality Commission about the impact of the current rules on some potential applicants from a minority background and said the law had changed similarly in England.
“I believed it was entirely appropriate and within my responsibilities as a minister to effect a change to the mandatory minimum criteria.”
As it stood, only one senior PSNI officer, Assistant Chief Constable George Hamilton, was eligible to apply to succeed Mr Baggott as he served almost three years at the same rank in Scotland.
The amendment would mean other high-profile PSNI assistant chief constables who have completed a strategic command course, including Will Kerr and Drew Harris, could apply.
Mr Ford said it was up to the Board to decide if it wanted to loosen the appointment criteria; he simply aimed to give it the discretion to do so.
“Rather than interfering with or diminishing the role of the Board, my intentions are aimed solely at enabling the Board to have more latitude and I remain entirely respectful of the Board’s primacy.”
He is to consult on his proposal. Democratic Unionist First Minister and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness’ joint office has said the decision must be considered by the ministerial Executive as a whole.
Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney said when the requirement to serve elsewhere had been imposed Mr Ford’s decision would have been seen as significant.
“That the appointment of a chief constable would have had to have served two years in an outside force, that would have been seen as one of the things that changed the perception of policing,” he said.
“I don’t think you can call lowering that standard modest. You are doing a disservice to the criteria in the first instance.”
He added: “To say that that is a modest change, it flies in the face of the reason it was brought in in the first instance. If it was a modest change why would people have always seen it as significant?”