A row has erupted over the future leadership of the PSNI (formerly RUC) following revelations last week that collusion-related documents in PSNI archives continue to be withheld from investigators.
Two decades after the reforms of the Patten Commission were meant to transform the murderous RUC into a cross-community policing service, the problem of ongoing collusion in the force dovetailed with new statistics which show that just 10% of senior members of the PSNI are Catholic.
Amid calls for the PSNI to be disbanded, a suggestion by Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald that its next chief should be an external candidate was greeted with outrage and calls for apologies by unionists.
Ulster Unionist Alan Chambers called on Sinn Féin representatives on the Policing Board to “publicly disassociate themselves from their party leader’s comments”.
The DUP’s Mervyn Storey said he was seeking legal advice over its inclusion of Sinn Féin members in the panel to select the next PSNI chief.
“How can any Sinn Féin member sit on that panel and candidates from the PSNI expect to get a fair hearing,” he demanded to know.
Ms McDonald’s comments came after she met bereaved families caught up in the controversy involving the PSNI’s secret and undisclosed archive of collusion documents.
“I cannot describe to you the level of distress of these families because they were expecting a report from the Ombudsman and he discovered by accident that critical information was withheld from him,” she said.
“People are looking on aghast with the latest episode of this.
“Any comments that I have made are reflective of exasperation and real upset from real people who live up the road. Any comments I will ever make will be in the interests of delivering credible policing services that people can support.”
It is understood some of the secret files are linked to a shipment of loyalist weapons smuggled into the north in the late 1980s. Collusion is suspected in many of the hundreds of murders involved.
The news that these files were withheld has caused nationalist confidence in the PSNI to sink to “rock bottom”, Sinn Féin has warned.
Ms McDonald cited a meeting with the Police Ombudsman where she heard details of information, specifically in relation to the Ormeau Road massacre. The gun assault carried out by the UDA in 1992 left five people dead.
Of the call for an outsider to take over the force, Ms McDonald said “there’s nothing to apologise for”, dismissing criticism of her remarks as “political huffing and puffing”.
The predecessor to the current PSNI chief George Hamilton, who is due to retire in June, was Matt Baggott, an external appointment from an English police force -- as was Hugh Orde, the first permanent PSNI chief.
“I was asked could I identify someone from the senior team who I thought ought to be chief (constable) and the truth is I can’t,” Ms McDonald said.
But DUP leader Arlene Foster said she believed Ms McDonald’s comments had jeopardised the recruitment process.
“The leader of one of the political parties involved in the panel has made her feelings quite clear and that of course interferes with due process and the panel has now been compromised,” she declared.
There was also a bizarre intervention by Fianna Fáil’s Housing Spokesperson Darragh O’Brien, apparently motivated by that party’s recent alliance with Sinn Féin’s main political rivals in the North, the SDLP.
He branded Ms McDonald’s as “wholly irresponsible” and “very dangerous” and accused her of “undermining” the PSNI -- despite a similar decision having been taken and supported by Fianna Fáil in regard to the reform of the Gardai in the 26 Counties.
The current chief of the Gardai, former RUC figure Drew Harris, was also an external appointment. Ironically, he also now stands accused of hiding collusion files from investigations which predate his appointment as Garda Commissioner one year ago.