Appointing a temporary chief constable to lead the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) risks leaving the force exposed to significant legal challenges, the chair of the Policing Board has told MPs.
During an appearance before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Deirdre Toner said the board is operating within a “difficult political backdrop” with no sitting Stormont Assembly and no minister for justice.
The committee also heard that deputy chief constable Mark Hamilton, who recently underwent a medical procedure, is currently not working full time but is still able to lead the police force.
The PSNI has been rocked by a series of recent controversies including a significant data breach and a critical High Court ruling around the disciplining of two junior officers, which led to Simon Byrne resigning as chief constable.
Mr Hamilton has since assumed the responsibilities of police chief, although the Police Federation for Northern Ireland has passed a vote of no confidence in his leadership.
Representatives of the Policing Board, the oversight body for the PSNI, answered questions on the leadership of the PSNI when the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee held a hearing at Stormont.
Ms Toner said the board had considered legal advice on options open to them following the resignation of Mr Byrne, to maintain the operational effectiveness of the PSNI.
She said: “The legislative framework that the board had been working with does not provide for the current environment where we do not have an Assembly or a minister for justice.
“It is fair to say that the matters we have been grappling with have been far from straightforward.”
She added: “The board considered legal advice on a range of options including the appointment of an interim chief constable, either from within or outside the service.
“In spite of significant commentary in this regard, this option was simply not one that was open to us.
“The office of chief constable is a significant one, with significant powers and responsibilities.
“The legal framework for appointing a person into that office is clear and we simply did not have the power to do it.
“Had we chosen to do so we would have left any decisions taken by that person open to significant challenge.”
Ms Toner said it would have been reckless to have appointed an interim police chief in the circumstances.
She added: “We could not have anticipated that the DCC (Mark Hamilton) would have to undergo an unplanned medical procedure.
“In light of the situation and the need within the leadership team we have in recent days advised the service that the current DCC could be asked to exercise his powers under section 34 to temporarily promote an existing ACC (assistant chief constable) to the role of DCC.
“But with this person only taking on the role if the current DCC is incapacitated.
“Discussions are continuing in relation to these arrangements.”
Ms Toner said the board was working at pace to expedite the recruitment of a permanent chief constable.
She added: “The board also continues to explore other options including a temporary appointment to coincide with the Secretary of State (Chris Heaton-Harris) having the power to ratify such an appointment and such options will continue to be discussed in the coming weeks.
“We are making decisions against a difficult political backdrop in the absence of ministers to ensure the police service continues to function in a robust and legal manner.”
DUP committee member Carla Lockhart asked the board members if they believed that the credibility of the oversight body was in tatters.
Vice chair Edgar Jardine said: “I think the credibility of the board would have been damaged more if we had strayed from the constraints within the legislation in which we had to work.”
Ms Lockhart said: “My understanding is that there is clear legal advice from the Department of Justice around the appointment of an external figurehead to the organisation.
“Has that been taken into consideration by the board?”
Ms Toner said: “We’ve heard a lot of commentary around how it should be easy to just slot someone in either acting up within the service or bringing in someone from outside.
“Our legal advice is that that’s not possible to appoint someone into the office of chief constable, it’s a high office and you can’t just put someone in without going through the proper appointments process.”
Asked whether Mr Hamilton is currently in charge of the PSNI, Ms Toner said: “He’s not working in the office full time, but when it’s necessary for him to invoke his section 34 powers he is giving those authorities.”
Committee chair Simon Hoare said he was not “seized with a sense of urgency” from the board members about restoring stability to the leadership of the PSNI.
He added: “Sometimes you’ve just got to be a little bit high risk, seize it to drive the agenda forward, to deliver confidence and stability.”