DUP chair Lord Morrow says Simon Byrne exit ‘inevitable’ as party split on calling for ouster of Chief Constable over south Armagh report fiasco

The chairman of the DUP Lord Morrow has added his voice to those of other party figures calling for the Chief Constable to fall on his sword, saying that such an outcome is now “inevitable”.

Saturday, 4th September 2021, 6:00 am
Updated Saturday, 4th September 2021, 9:25 am
Lord Morrow

There has been ambivalence all week about where the party stands on the matter, but the DUP leadership yesterday signalled there is may still be time for Simon Byrne to try and win back unionist trust.

In addition, the Orange Order – writing exclusively in the News Letter – said Mr Byrne’s tenure has seen “a catalogue of ill-judged decisions in the past 18 months which illustrate the PSNI’s clear lack of understanding of the concerns of the Unionist community”.

It all comes after a week of outrage and bafflement among politicians, policing families, and Troubles victims, sparked by a major review into policing in south Armagh.

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The report – written by two senior regional officers – recommended considering hiding memorials to murdered officers from public view, and developing some kind of cross-border joint policing model.

After allowing anger to build for days over the proposals, Mr Byrne tried to reassure unionists on Thursday afternoon that he was never considering hiding memorials, and that if An Garda Siochana were to be allowed to operate in Northern Ireland (and vice versa) it would be a matter for politicians, not for him.

DUP MLA Joanne Bunting called Mr Byrne’s handling of the matter a “PR disaster” and a “self-inflicted wound” against himself and the force.

Party leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson meanwhile appears equivocal on whether Mr Byrne must go or not, declaring yesterday : “Confidence within unionism, in terms of the current policing arrangements, current policing policy, is at rock bottom.

“If we are to rebuild that confidence then there needs to be change, that is either an urgent change of policy or an urgent change of leadership.”

Then last night, Lord Morrow – who has been in the post of party chair for 20 years – entered the fray too, telling the News Letter: “I think there is an inevitability about Simon Byrne’s future.

“I think his position has become untenable.

“He’s sidetracking us out of policing and justice and what the people out on the streets want – the simple imposition of the rule of law.

“He’s got himself caught in a web of ideology. And has taken his eye off the real issues here, the enforcement of law and order.

“He’s let a lot of people down and he feels there’s only one constituency that has to be addressed – and it’s republicanism. Everybody else is secondary to that.

“He’s lost the confidence of certainly the unionist community, and he’s lost the confidence of many who would not call themselves unionists, because they too are a bit fed up with a Chief Constable who comes out with these half-baked ideas that really are not enhancements of law and order.”

What is “written right across Simon Byrne’s tenure” is a devotion to “political correctness, and all the hangers-on of that” – something which Lord Morrow believes has done nothing to tackle the core issues officers face on the ground.

His two-year leadership of the force has become “the longest-running farce in town” and so the time is right that “he relieves himself of duty and enjoys his retirement”.

Lord Morrow concluded: “He should do that for himself, for Northern Ireland, and for the PSNI.”

LEADERSHIP NOT EXPLICITLY CALLING FOR OUSTER:

When it comes to others within his party, Sammy Wilson said on Thursday: “The Chief Constable has lost all credibility.

“He has caused hurt to the families of those officers killed in the line of duty. He is intent on creating all-Ireland policing structures without political or community consent.

“He should resign in disgrace.”

And a day before that, DUP economy minister Gordon Lyons called for Mr Byrne to resign – prompting a somewhat confused response from party leader Jeffrey Donaldson.

Asked by the BBC whether he shared that view, Mr Donaldson said: “I’m saying very clearly I think the Chief Constable has lost the confidence of unionists... Gordon speaks for the party and that is very clear, I believe he’s speaking for many across the unionist community.”

However, he also said he wanted to wait to hear what Mr Byrne said when he met him in person on Thursday.

Yesterday, Sir Jeffrey said the police top brass face a choice – “an urgent change of policy or an urgent change of leadership”.

He went on to state: “We need to see that happening and happening quickly.

“I think it is absolutely clear that the chief constable needs to build on this statement, it is not just about the policy in south Armagh, it is about the policy all over Northern Ireland.

“It is about engaging, it is about ensuring that we don’t have a situation where people believe there is two-tier policing; one law for one set, another law for the rest of us.

“That is not acceptable.”

Mr Byrne told the Policing Board on Thursday that – despite what the entire Province had been led to believe ever since the report emerged publicly on Tuesday – he had already rejected the idea of hiding memorials to murdered officers.

He told MLAs that “we recognise for a whole host of reasons we were not ready to take forward this recommendation in the terms it was written; it was just the wrong time, in the wrong era – so we put that absolutely unequivocally to one side”.

And on the issue of allowing cross-border pursuits (that is, letting gardai chase suspects into Northern Ireland and arrest them) Mr Byrne recognised that this requires “both political support and legislation” – something which unionists would likely be able to veto at Stormont.

Thomas Buchanan, one of the DUP members on the Policing Board, had told the News Letter prior to Thursday’s board meeting: “Quite frankly, in my opinion when we look back over the past 12 months and see all the things that’ve taken place – the inequalities, the two-tier policing, all of it – it’s time for the chief constable to pack his bags, get on his bike, and go.”

He also said that if Mr Byrne had told MLAs that he stood over every one of the recommendations in the report, he would quit the board.

Now that he has heard Mr Byrne’s assurances, Mr Buchanan said further clarity on how Mr Byrne plans to proceed are needed within “weeks”.

“We have to wait and see now what comes forward from the discussions the party leader had,” he said. “And we’ll take it then from there.”

TIMELINE OF CONTROVERSY:

The roots of this controversy can be traced back to Christmas Day, 2019, about six months after Mr Byrne took up the role as PSNI boss.

On that day Mr Byrne had visited Crossmaglen police station, in the heart of republican south Armagh, and posed for a picture outside with some of the officers on duty.

Two of the officers were holding G36 rifles.

This caused a storm of protest from republicans about the “militarised” nature of policing in the area, and Mr Byrne apologised.

What happened next was that he commissioned a report into policing arrangements in south Armagh.

It was published on Tuesday this week although in a still-unexplained twist, it is actually dated December 2020 (according to Thomas Buchanan, Policing Board members had been afforded a fleeting look at the report in July, expecting it would subsequently be altered).

Here are just a handful of the recommendations which south Armagh police commanders proposed:

> The PSNI should consider hiding memorials to murdered police officers from public view, in case republicans are offended by them when they visit a station;

> Creating joint “cross-border policing structures” which will let police carry out pursuits on both sides of the border – “as a minimum”;

> That the “look and feel” of police checkpoints must be “carefully considered to minimise community impact and avoid legacy associations”;

> That officers should have “a balanced understanding of emotional legacy issues” and recognise the “positive and respectful narrative” of south Armagh, with training provided by “external community” sources if need be.

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