Northern Ireland

Simon Byrne: The gaffes and setbacks of PSNI chief's first year

Simon Byrne Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption It's been a tough year for Simon Byrne since he was appointed PSNI chief constable

It has been a year tinged by misfortune for PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne.

He has been a man in a hurry, whose grand plan for Northern Ireland policing has been knocked off course.

Covid-19 has set back the roll-out of his neighbourhood policing initiative. New Decade, New Approach was also meant to lift officer numbers to 7,500, but the money is not there.

And there have been mistakes of his own doing, PR gaffes that exposed a lack of awareness of the sensitivities of policing this corner of the UK.

He became PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) chief constable on 1 July, 2019 and set off at a sprint.

Rushing in

He moved into a flat in Belfast and, with his family initially remaining in England, threw himself into the job 24/7.

He looked like a man on a mission, driven by natural energy and a seeming desire to right the wrong of his departure from Cheshire Constabulary, where he had been forced out by unfounded allegations of bullying.

But his impatience can cause him trouble.

Not content with an autumn consultation on a brand refresh, Mr Byrne recently fired out "a test balloon tweet" showing a modified uniform badge that had the words "Police Service Northern Ireland" removed.

Image copyright PSNI
Image caption Simon Byrne rowed back on proposed PSNI rebranding

Within 72 hours, in the face of opposition, he rowed back, causing one observer of policing to remark: "His car goes as fast in reverse as it does going forward."

He also loves to tweet.

While one of his command team took a grilling at a Policing Board meeting, Mr Byrne removed the phone from his pocket and snapped a picture for his social media account.

It is an enthusiasm that those around him have tried to curb, especially after he posted a picture from Crossmaglen police station on Christmas Day posing with heavily-armed officers.

It offended nationalist politicians and led to an apology from Mr Byrne.

No blame for some outside events

He also grabbed headlines for the wrong reasons last September when, in an interview, he told paramilitaries that along with targeting their property "we will have your kids".

The remarks overshadowed the simultaneous big announcement of year one - the redeployment of 400 officers to neighbourhood patrols.

Mr Byrne, though, can take no blame for outside events that have proven to be major disruptors.

Covid-19 laid waste to the full implementation of putting more resources into neighbourhood policing - the target of one community officer for each electoral ward is now pushed back until the end of summer.

Image copyright PAcemaker
Image caption Events such as Covid-19 and a delayed recruitment campaign have been outside events that have disrupted Mr Byrne's tenure

A new recruitment campaign has also been delayed due to lockdown measures.

When it comes to extra officers, Mr Byrne quickly discovered that while New Decade, New Approach pledged the objective of growth to 7,500 officers, the money is not there to fund them.

The political deal also held out the prospect of finally ridding the PSNI of Troubles' era cases, only for the legacy plan to falter.

Emerging financial realties could also derail his modernisation agenda, which includes a new headquarters.

So as year two commences, Mr Byrne will want improved fortunes.

"He is still the right man for the job," one member of the Policing Board said.

But he can start by making his own luck by not tripping himself up so often - usually with the foot that remains stuck in policing in Great Britain.

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