South Armagh fiasco: Byrne denies ‘floundering in child’s paddling pool’ as he is peppered with criticism over handling of major PSNI reform plans
Chief Constable Simon Byrne’s handling of a major report into how south Armagh is policed has been described as just the latest “self-inflicted wound” he has meted out to himself.
The remark was made at a meeting of the Policing Board in Belfast today; just one of many stinging criticisms levelled at the PSNI leader, with another MLA likening him to someone floundering in a child’s paddling pool.
The barbs came after a catastrophic two days for the PSNI top brass, during which Mr Byrne had allowed an enormous amount of outrage to build up around a proposal to hide memorials to murdered officers from public view in police stations, so as not to offend republicans.
The idea of hiding the memorials was just one of 50 recommendations in the South Armagh Policing Review report, which was compiled by two senior local officers – one of chief superintendent rank, and another of chief inspector rank – and made public on Tuesday.
It calls for the closure of Crossmaglen police station and the rebranding of Newtownhamilton station as South Armagh Police Station.
Then, word-for-word, here is what the report proposes under recommendation six:
“Rebalance the emphasis on the past by exploring the relocation of memorials to an agreed space in the station away from public locations and main thoroughfares.”
Signals emerged on Wednesday night that this proposal was not in fact being considered by police.
And then when Mr Byrne sat before the board today, he told MLAs (reading from a pre-prepared script): “I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight on what has, and what has not, been agreed.
“I hope that this will provide necessary reassurance to you and the wider public and calm the rhetoric.
“What is absolutely not true, is that all recommendations are a ‘fait accompli’...
“It is important that despite the unhelpful rhetoric from some quarters there is no misunderstanding on a number of critical issues.
“We are not removing memorials and never have been...
“Far from disrespecting or forgetting our 30 colleagues who paid the ultimate sacrifice, I think we can do better than what we currently have in place. Over the horizon, plans for a new police museum may reflect this.”
In response to questioning from DUP MLA Trevor Clarke, Mr Byrne further attempted to “clarify” the situation by saying “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”.
UUP board member Mike Nesbitt said: “I do to an extent welcome the assurances you’ve given today – that the only moving of memorials will be in the event of a station closure.
“But as they say in politics: when you are explaining, you are losing.”
He also castigated Mr Byrne over the fact that, in its efforts to gauge the opinions of the south Armagh public, the PSNI had not hired a reputable, big-name company to do any polling – instead relying on an outfit called CRJ Ireland (led by IRA killer Harry Maguire) to run a public consultation.
When Mr Byrne struggled to respond, Mr Nesbitt went on to say: “As you say yourself, this was the biggest review of policing since Patten 20 years ago yet you are unaware of the methodology of he consultation.
“If we look at Patten and consider it a deep dive, would you accept you are now splashing about in the children’s paddling pool?”
He replied: “I don’t accept we were splashing around in a paddling pool, in that... in relation to 50 recommendations there’s broad consensus on probably 45, 46 of them at the least. We didn’t not listen to feedback.”
DUP board member Joanne Bunting put it to Mr Byrne that “there’s no question this south Armagh review report is another self-inflicted wound on yourself and the PSNI”.
She went on to say it looked as if proposals were being brought forward and retracted within a couple of days “in response to a public backlash”, and put it to him that the whole affair felt to many of her constituents the report was “yet more pandering to Sinn Fein and the IRA” and that the whole thing had been “a PR disaster”.
Mr Byrne complained that some of the PSNI’s messaging had been “lost in translation” and claimed he had said “from the get-go on Tuesday” that the memorial issue was “out of scope”.
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