DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said it is “time for change” at the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) as Chief Constable Simon Byrne faces a crunch meeting with his oversight body.
Sir Jeffrey said public confidence in the police force had been undermined after a High Court judge ruled that a decision to take action against two junior officers following a Troubles memorial event in 2021 was unlawful.
Mr Justice Scoffield said the decision was made to discipline the officers to allay any threat of Sinn Fein abandoning its support for policing in Northern Ireland.
Unionists have accused Mr Byrne of taking unjustified action against the officers to placate republicans.
Sinn Fein denied there was any threat to withdraw support for policing.
Mr Byrne is meeting members of the Policing Board at a specially convened private meeting in Belfast to discuss the fallout from the judgment.
The episode has heaped further pressure on a senior police officer who was already facing questions about his future after a major data blunder led to personal details of PSNI officers entering the public domain and getting into the hands of dissident republicans.
Speaking to the media at Stormont Castle after a meeting between the parties and Jayne Brady, head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, Sir Jeffrey echoed comments by his colleague Trevor Clarke that Mr Byrne should resign.
“I think that the developments this week with the High Court ruling on the judicial review brought by two PSNI constables has raised some very serious issues, and I think this goes to the heart of public confidence in our police service and the senior leadership,” he said.
“I think the key issue for the Policing Board now is, who is best placed to win back that confidence, because there’s no doubt there have been a series of situations and events that have harmed public confidence, and not only public confidence, I speak to many serving police officers who themselves are very concerned about the leadership they’re getting.
“I think the key question for the Policing Board today is who is best placed to lead the police service in winning back public confidence and addressing the very real issues and problems that have arisen in recent weeks that have undermined public confidence.
“We have come to the view that it is time for change.”
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy reiterated the position of his party that at no point did it insinuate or suggest it would withdraw from policing arrangements.
He added: “The job of everyone in the Policing Board is to work with and to hold to account policing at all levels.
“When there is an issue arises you want to see where decisions were taken which caused that issue.
“It was clearly appalling that someone who was a victim of a loyalist attack was arrested and handcuffed on the scene where he was commemorating those who lost their lives.
“The jobs of all political representatives is to ensure we hold all levels of policing to account and that is what we do.”
Asked if he supported Mr Byrne remaining in position he said it was a matter for the Policing Board.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who was the justice minister in 2021, addressed conversations she had had with Mr Byrne in the fallout from the policing operation in 2021.
She said: “At all times as justice minister I made a clear distinction between my role as minister and the role of the oversight bodies.
“At no time and on no issue did I ever seek to influence the chief constable’s decision-making in any way.
“I met with the chief constable on phone calls on two occasions subsequent to the incident, one was a routine call and the second was a follow-up call the chief constable made to me to brief me.
“The chief constable has to account for his conduct. That is what the Policing Board’s role is and that is what they will be doing today.”
The incident happened on the Ormeau Road in February 2021 during a service marking the anniversary of the February 1992 Sean Graham bookmakers attack in which five people were murdered.
The two officers faced action in 2021 after the arrest of Mark Sykes, a survivor of a loyalist gun attack on the bookmakers in south Belfast.
The incident unfolded when police challenged people attending a memorial event amid suspicions that the size of the public gathering breached coronavirus regulations.
Mr Sykes was handcuffed and arrested in chaotic exchanges captured on social media.
The incident triggered a major controversy at the time and sparked criticism of Mr Byrne.
He apologised for the PSNI’s handling of the event and it was announced that one officer was to be suspended and one repositioned.
After a legal challenge by the Police Federation, Mr Justice Scoffield said: “Both the deputy chief constable (Mark Hamilton) and the chief constable were acutely aware of the threat of Sinn Fein withdrawing support for policing and/or withdrawing from the Policing Board if immediate action was not taken in respect of the officers’ duty status.”
In a statement in response to the court’s findings on Tuesday, Mr Byrne said he accepted the court findings.