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Simon Byrne: even before his resignation, it was clear the chief constable’s time was up

Even before his resignation was announced on Monday, it was inevitable that Simon Byrne’s time as PSNI chief constable was up.

Despite insisting last week he would not step down following a damning High Court ruling on the police’s management of a commemoration marking the anniversary of a sectarian massacre on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, Byrne spent the weekend planning his departure from the £230,000 (€267,000) a year job.

So what changed?

His downfall – or “final straw” as the head of the Police Federation, the body representing rank and file officers, described it on Monday – was the statement he released directly after an emergency policing board meeting last Thursday when he signalled his plan to appeal the legal ruling.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Scoffield found that the decision to discipline two junior PSNI officers over an arrest at the Ormeau Road commemoration event was motivated by a real or perceived threat that Sinn Féin could withdraw its support for policing (a threat Sinn Féin has emphatically denied).

Byrne’s decision to challenge the ruling sparked outrage and led to an unprecedented move: the Police Federation was considering a vote of no confidence in the chief constable for the first time since the organisation was set up to represent serving officers in 1971.

The federation’s meeting was due to take place this Wednesday, just 24 hours after Byrne was to be grilled for the first time by a Westminster scrutiny committee over last month’s massive PSNI data breach – the biggest in UK policing – in which 10,000 surnames of officers and civilian staff were mistakenly placed on the internet.

By last Friday, the DUP called for the chief constable’s head and tabled a motion of no confidence to the policing board, the oversight body which holds the PSNI to account.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie also said Byrne’s position had become untenable.

In a personal statement delivered by the policing board on behalf of Byrne – he did not attend the hastily arranged press conference – he said that “regardless of the rights and wrongs, it is now time for someone new to lead this proud and resolute organisation”.

Yet just four months ago, his contract was renewed by the board for another three years.

Appointed to the North’s most senior policing post in 2019, Byrne was the former Cheshire chief constable and had more than 30 years’ experience across English police forces.

The Cheshire posting ended in controversy with a lengthy suspension amid allegations of “gross misconduct with regards to authority, respect and courtesy and discreditable conduct”.

He was suspended while 74 allegations of misconduct were investigated, only for him to be cleared in 2018 on all counts.

Originally from Surrey, he was not the first person from outside Northern Ireland to head-up the PSNI – Matt Baggott and Hugh Orde are former appointments – and almost a year into the job he said in an interview with the Irish News that he was “still trying to understand the hurt and harm caused during the Troubles”.

Passionate about reforming and “normalising” the PSNI through community policing, he also became known as one of the most gaffe-prone police chiefs.

Within weeks of his appointment, he suggested a range of measures could be employed against dissident paramilitaries – including their children being taken into care.

His social media posting of a photograph taken outside Crossmaglen police station on Christmas Day alongside heavily armed police officers led to an outcry, with Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy branding it “offensive”.

However, the gaffe also resulted in a far-reaching reform report on policing in south Armagh, a move welcomed by nationalists.

Calls for his resignation came from unionists over the policing at the controversial funeral of veteran republican Bobby Storey in west Belfast in 2020 at the height of Covid-19 restrictions when 2,000 mourners attended.

Attention now turns as to who will succeed Byrne given his resignation is with “immediate effect”.

Deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton would be the obvious choice, but he has also been damaged by last week’s High Court ruling and faced calls from unionist parties to resign.

As one of the most politicised jobs in UK policing overseeing a workforce where morale has plummeted and public confidence has been severely eroded, the new candidate has, in the words of the Police Federation, a “mountain to climb”.

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