PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne’s tenure marked by controversies

Simon Byrne. PSNI chief constable
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne.

Simon Byrne has had to deal with a number of controversies and challenges since taking up the position of the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in July 2019. Mr Byrne arrived in the region after a tumultuous end to his tenure as chief constable of Cheshire Police, when he was suspended over misconduct claims. He went on to be cleared by a panel of all 74 allegations made against him. His PSNI contract was recently extended by the Northern Ireland Policing Board until 2027.

Simon Byrne in an interview with UTV in July 2019

Here are some of the main controversies from Mr Byrne’s career with the PSNI.

  • September 2019:

Mr Byrne was criticised after making a comment suggesting that the children of paramilitaries could be taken into care. Following a furore, Mr Byrne said he was happy to withdraw “the interpretation that children are pawns, if that’s what’s been heard”, adding it was not his intention.

Simon Byrne's tweet on Christmas Day in 2019 sparked anger.
  • 25 December 2019:

A photograph of Mr Byrne standing outside Crossmaglen Police Station on Christmas Day with heavily armed colleagues sparked a row when it was tweeted. Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said the image was “highly offensive” to local residents and raised the issue of “militaristic-style” policing in South Armagh, an area formerly dubbed no-go by the British Army during the Troubles. Mr Byrne apologised for the tweet and also announced a review of policing in the area.

  • June 2020:

Mr Byrne ditched proposals to remove the name Northern Ireland from a new police logo. The proposal was met with criticism from some within the unionist and loyalist community. Responding to the controversy, Mr Byrne said the simplified crest would no longer be included in a public consultation on wider rebranding proposals.

Police were criticised for their handling of a Black Lives Matter protest.
  • 6 June 2020:

Police move in to issue fines at a Black Lives Matter protests in Belfast and Londonderry when crowds gathered despite coronavirus social distancing rules restricting large groups meeting. Organisers raised concerns at the policing of the event compared to other during the pandemic, and Police Ombudsman Marie Anderson later found that concerns around the discriminatory police handling of Black Lives Matter protests were justified. In response, Mr Byrne said he was sorry that relations with those minority communities had been damaged and vowed to “put things right”.

  • 30 June 2020:

The PSNI is criticised for the policing of the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey which saw huge crowds gather despite coronavirus restrictions, including Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill. After unionist leaders questioned why no action was taken to enforce the rule, Cumbria Deputy Chief Constable Mark Webster was appointed to review the policing operation.

The Bobby Storey funeral.

It sparked a row that rumbled on in the ensuing months. Then DUP leader Arlene Foster called on Mr Byrne to resign in April 2021 after prosecutors ruled out action against Sinn Fein leaders who attended the funeral, citing police engagement with the organisers among reasons why any prosecution would likely fail.

  • 5 February 2021:

Senior Sinn Féin members, including Ms O’Neill, criticise the policing of a memorial event for the 29th anniversary of the loyalist attack at a Sean Graham bookmakers shop on the Ormeau Road in Belfast which killed five after a survivor of the atrocity was arrested. The row started when two junior police officers moved in to enforce coronavirus restrictions. Mr Byrne apologised to those at the event, and announced that one of the officers had been suspended and another repositioned while the Police Ombudsman investigated the incident. The Police Ombudsman later sent a file to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS), but the PPS decided against pursuing a prosecution of the officers.

Simon Byrne in April 2021

  • August 2023:

Revelations of a “monumental” data breach which saw details of around 10,000 police officers and staff published online forced Mr Byrne to cut short a family holiday to return to Belfast for an emergency meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. It later emerged that dissident republicans, who continue to target police officers for assassination were among those who accessed the data sparking concern among officers and staff for their safety. Further data breaches emerged in the weeks after. Mr Byrne said he was “deeply sorry”, but said he had no plans to resign, adding the PSNI needed consistency and calm heads to be led through an “unprecedented crisis”.

  • August 2023:

Mr Byrne has to attend his third emergency Policing Board meeting in a month after a row erupts following a High Court ruling. Mr Justice Scoffield says that two police officers were unlawfully disciplined following the Sean Graham bookmakers memorial event in 2021. The judge says the officers were disciplined to allay any threat of Sinn Fein abandoning its support for policing in Northern Ireland. Mr Byrne says he accepts the court ruling and faces calls to resign from unionist politicians.

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