Simon Byrne was nobody’s favourite for the top policing job here; not part of the pre-interview talk or predictions, other than as a bolt-on or end thought in conversations about Jon Boutcher, Stephen Martin and Mark Hamilton.
Here, they are better known. Martin and Hamilton are senior PSNI officers. Boutcher is leading the Stakeknife investigation.
Yet, by Friday evening, Byrne – cast in that role of also ran – had raced through the field.
He was announced as the next PSNI Chief Constable – the fifth in that post following Ronnie Flanagan, Hugh Orde, Matt Baggott and George Hamilton, who retires at the end of next month. (Colin Cramphorn and Judith Gillespie had spells as acting chief constable).
UNDER THE RADAR
On Friday, Byrne came in under the radar; this appointment representing the rebuilding of a career at the top of UK policing after being cleared last year of misconduct allegations. At the time, he was Chief Constable in Cheshire.
He had previously held the assistant commissioner rank (chief constable equivalent) with the Metropolitan Police. Given his experience, we really should have been paying more attention.
George Hamilton called his successor on Saturday morning to wish him well.
For two decades now we have been talking about new policing; the new beginning envisaged in the Patten Report of 1999 and the journey beyond the RUC into the PSNI.
NEW POLICING IS NOT JUST ABOUT A NEW CHIEF CONSTABLE
“Policing With the Community is the ‘how’ of policing,” George Hamilton told this website.
“It’s about accountability, culturally intelligent service delivery and working in partnership with the community to solve problems,” he continued.
“While progress has been made in mainstreaming that mindset, it has been hampered and contradicted by the unresolved legacy issues and the ongoing severe threat from violent dissidents against police officers,” the Chief Constable said.
If nothing changes, other than the officer in the top policing rank here, then ‘new policing’ will continue to be held down by those heavy weights of the past and the dissident threat in the here and now..
Policing has not been depolitcised. That Patten test remains a challenge.
Just look at legacy.
As we watch the juggling of legal protections for military veterans versus historical investigations, so we see the debate and the arguments about the past becoming more political and even more poisonous.
A unionist politician, who contacted me recently, believes this issue will be part of the bargaining between the next British Prime Minister, the DUP and “the colonel wing of the Tories”.
If there is to be some type of amnesty, then it should be across the board, and legacy should become a process of information, practical help and story-telling, not as some archive, but as part of memorial and remembrance.
When I spoke with him over the weekend, Chief Constable George Hamilton pointed me to his speech at the British/Irish Association at Oxford in September 2014 – just weeks after he had stepped into the top policing job here.
Then he warned that “to continue to ignore, hesitate or procrastinate on the past will have unpredictable and far reaching consequences”.
Five years on, the legacy and amnesty wars continue.
I have argued many times that you cannot have a peace process that releases prisoners and, then, a past process that sends people to jail.
Somebody from outside of politics – and outside of us – needs to lead that conversation.
What has the Policing Board done to held shape the legacy debate and find solutions? It should not be sitting on its hands.
On a separate issue, the dissident threat means there are parts of the community in which the police still have to keep a distance.
Why is it taking so long for a thought-through strategy from within the nationalist community to directly challenge that threat?
Where is the John Hume of 2019?
Recently, the influential republican Jake Mac Siacais – a former IRA prisoner and now director of the project developing Belfast Gaeltacht Quarter – said Sinn Fein cannot lead that dialogue; that it should be shaped from within the community sector.
“You need to get under the skin of it [the dissident threat],” he said – “how do we get these people to engage in their communities?” he asked.
“What we need to set our faces against is nihilistic, futile armed actions that even the perpetrators say have no purpose beyond propaganda,” he told me in a recent interview for the UTV View From Stormont programme.
In that interview, he also raised the question of MI5 – why it has a larger presence in the peace than during the conflict period. His point is this; that new policing has to mean just that.
In the waiting, the police are still judged by the past – and in a way that others are not judged.
Think about those guns fired by republicans as a salute to their dead in recent weeks. Why is the past so large and prominent in the present? Because of actions such as these. The reminders that come with remembering.
Change is not just about the police. Others need to have a look in the mirror.
If they don’t, then, in several years time, when the next chief constable is being chosen, we will still be talking about that dissident threat, the poison that is our past and an unfinished peace.