Police can’t plan budgets because of Stormont crisis: George Hamilton

Chief Constable George Hamilton at Thursday's meeting of the Policing Board
Chief Constable George Hamilton at Thursday's meeting of the Policing Board

Northern Ireland’s police chief has stressed the need for budget clarity as political talks aimed at resolving Stormont’s financial problems intensify.

George Hamilton said strategic financial management was impossible while the uncertainty over his spend remained.

A budget wrangle that has left the power-sharing administration in Belfast facing a black hole of hundreds of millions of pounds is one of the key issues being thrashed out in ongoing talks involving the five Executive parties and the British and Irish governments.

A resolution to the long-standing impasse over the Executive’s failure to implement the UK government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland will be crucial to any breakthrough.

The talks are also trying to find a way forward on a range of other disputes destabilising Stormont, including the fallout from a recent murder linked to the IRA and a row over how to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

Exchanges involving the two main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, and the UK government have ramped up in recent days and are set to extend into the weekend in an effort to get some form of deal over the line.

Mr Hamilton outlined the consequences of the budgetary uncertainty on the PSNI as he addressed his oversight committee, the Northern Ireland Policing Board, in Belfast.

The PSNI’s budget has already been cut by multiple millions in recent years as a consequence of tightening Stormont purse strings.

He noted that police colleagues in England and Wales were also having to implement major cuts, but added: “As chief constable of the PSNI, I find myself facing cuts of similar levels but without the same financial tools and, critically, without the clarity required to allow for long-term planning.

“While we know that the trajectory of the police budget is downward, the clarity required for strategic financial management is simply not there – either for the current financial year, next year or the years after.

“In order to manage service delivery as best we can amid this uncertainty, we have spent prudently and worked hard to identify in-year savings, as required by the Department of Justice.”

He said the department had asked the PSNI to complete a scenario planning exercise considering the impact of a five per cent and a 10 per cent budget cut.

“Whilst this was simply a scenario planning exercise, we have made clear our belief that cuts of this extent would require a fundamental redrafting of the Northern Ireland Policing Plan and a systematic review of the functions and remits of all agencies with statutory responsibilities for public safety,” said Mr Hamilton.

“These are strong words but deliberately so. As accounting officer, I recognise that PSNI must share in the cuts that are impacting right across the public sector, but we cannot continue to have our budget squeezed without addressing the scale of the demands placed on policing.”

A PSNI assessment that individual members of the Provisional IRA were involved in August’s murder of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan in Belfast sparked the latest crisis to engulf Stormont.

Mr Hamilton acknowledged the police’s comments had major implications but he told board members his organisation could not allow itself to be “fettered” by the potential political fallout of its actions.