Northern Ireland's top cop quits after security breach, disciplinary controversy

Simon Byrne faced backlash over FoI blunder, plus claims officers were 'punished' to appease Sinn Féin

Northern Ireland's police chief, Simon Byrne, resigned last night after an emergency meeting of the Policing Board amid discontent in the rank and file over a data breach that exposed serving officers' info, as well as news he was considering appealing a court ruling linked to the Troubles.

Police officer stands guard at a police cordon point while army ATO examine a suspected bomb in Belfast, Northern Ireland

An armed police officer stands guard at a cordon point while army ammunition technical officers examine a suspected bomb in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Pic: Stephen Barnes/Shutterstock

The Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable said in a statement: "The last few days have been very difficult for all concerned.

"Regardless of the rights and wrongs it is now time for someone new to lead this proud and resolute organisation."

Policing Board chair Deidre Toner said the board "will now consider the leadership arrangements going forward."

Byrne's resignation comes after the large-scale security data breach on August 8, an own goal where the PSNI mistakenly published spreadsheet data with the details of every single serving Northern Ireland police officer following a routine Freedom of Information (FoI) request on the website.

The details were formatted into 32 columns including the surname, initials, rank/grade, role, service number, department, location, duty type, and gender of all serving officers and staff –  with Byrne himself earlier admitting he was confident that dissident republican groups, which have a history of targeting police officers, had obtained access to the data.

The Northern Irish police force considers itself particularly vulnerable to disclosure issues, and usually identities of police officers in the region of the UK are closely guarded due to the ethno-nationalist conflict that has raged on the island of Ireland for decades. Sectarian violence was largely dampened after paramilitaries laid down arms after signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but strong feelings and occasional outbreaks of violence persist.

An independent review into the data spillage is under way, with those commissioned saying [PDF]: "Due to the sensitivity of the information, as well as the ongoing severe threat level, a Critical Incident was declared on the 9th August 2023, with reporting into (PSNI) Platinum and Gold Command structures."

Legal tussle

As for the High Court ruling, a judge last week [PDF] found that two probationary constables – junior officers – were unlawfully disciplined for an arrest made at a Troubles commemoration event in 2021.

The High Court judge ruled on Tuesday last week that he would quash PSNI's decisions to suspend one probationary constable and "re-position" his colleague, finding the two junior officers were unlawfully disciplined to allay any threat of Sinn Féin abandoning its support for policing in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin has insisted it would not have done so and hadn't made any such threats.

The judge noted that the junior officers:

... also contend that the suspension and re-positioning decisions were imposed for an extra-statutory purpose, namely that of punishment, rather than simply as a public interest measure pending investigation...

The junior cops were enforcing COVID regulations in 2021 at a service marking an anniversary of the Sean Graham bookmakers attack. In the 1992 mass shooting atrocity, members of a loyalist Ulster paramilitary group opened fire on civilians inside a shop on Ormeau Road in the Catholic area of south Belfast, killing five and wounding nine.

According to a PSNI statement at the time, the two officers approached a person to talk to him about "a breach of the Health Protection Regulations. The situation quickly escalated and a man was arrested for disorderly behaviour and resisting arrest. He was taken to Musgrave Street Police Station and was released at 4.04 pm. In the course of the incident a police officer sustained a minor injury to his face."

Liam Kelly, chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, said of Byrne's resignation that the Chief Constable's position had become "questionable and then untenable."

"The Ormeau Rd Judicial Review and the shocking potential course of action following the Policing Board was the final straw for Mr Byrne. The ruling was damning, and his initial acceptance followed by a volte face around a potential legal appeal grievously undermined his credibility and authority to lead the PSNI. It called into question his judgement, decision-making abilities, and made his position untenable."

Kelly said that "Byrne has now done the right thing," adding: "On a personal level, Mr Byrne has always been approachable and courteous."

Byrne had also been facing growing pressure to step down in relation to the personal data of all serving members being shared and had been facing the prospect of a vote of no confidence from the rank and file when he walked away.

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton is in line to head the service while the board seeks a new leader, but has also faced calls from unionist parties to resign. We've asked PSNI who will step in.

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