DUBLIN – The commander of Northern Ireland’s police force resigned Monday after infuriating rank-and-file officers over his bungled handling of two separate scandals.
Against the odds, Chief Constable Simon Byrne had defied demands for his immediate resignation following last month’s accidental publication of the professional details of his entire 10,000-strong workforce. That unprecedented data breach revealed the closely guarded identities of key anti-terrorist personnel, exposing them to potential attack by Irish Republican Army die-hards.
But he couldn’t survive the even stronger internal uproar over his defiant announcement last week that he intended to appeal a Belfast High Court judgment. It found he had unlawfully punished two junior officers as they tried to enforce coronavirus regulations at an Irish republican event in 2021. The court found he had bowed to political pressure from Sinn Féin, a finding that both he and the Irish republican party denied.
“The last few days have been very difficult for all concerned regardless of the rights and wrongs,” Byrne said in a statement issued by a cross-community panel that oversees the Police Service of Northern Ireland. “It is now time for someone new to lead this proud and resolute organization.”
His reluctant exit means Byrne, 60, will lose a contract that was due to pay the Englishman more than £230,000 annually into 2027 – and leaves a Northern Irish native, Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, at least temporarily in charge.
However, when asked who was in command now and how a successor would be appointed, Northern Ireland Policing Board chair Deirdre Toner said she wasn’t immediately sure. That’s at least in part because Hamilton was also found by the Belfast court to have wrongly punished the two officers in question.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which had demanded Byrne’s resignation following his refusal to accept the court judgment, welcomed his U-turn.
“Fair and even-handed policing is just as foundational to progress in Northern Ireland as fully functioning political institutions operating on a cross-community basis,” said DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, referring to his own party’s ongoing refusal to revive a power-sharing government at Stormont with Sinn Féin.
Donaldson said Byrne was right to quit after the court found he had acted “to appease Sinn Féin” and voiced hopes that the next appointee would rebuild “lost confidence” and lead a force “impartial in its actions.”
Sinn Féin, which had not called for Byrne’s ouster, issued a sympathetic response to his departure.
“There is clearly a job of work to be done by the incoming senior policing team and their leadership to rebuild confidence with staff and civilian workers and the wider public,” said Gerry Kelly, an Irish Republican Army veteran who today is one of three Sinn Féin representatives on the police board. He said Byrne had spent the past four years filling “a difficult and often very challenging role” and offered good wishes to him and his family.
Byrne’s resignation allowed him to avoid what would have been the first public scrutiny of his oversight of the data breach at Tuesday’s scheduled meeting of the Northern Ireland affairs committee in London.