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PSNI at 20: Politics is risking progress say leaders

Policing in Northern Ireland has made a paradigm shift but political critics are undermining progress, experts warn.

Reforms to policing in Northern Ireland have delivered huge changes but progress is at risk from political interference, Ulster’s leaders have been told.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s twentieth anniversary was marked by warnings that efforts to normalise community response work were being made difficult by repeated political challenge.

Leaders linked to policing used the milestone of change from the Royal Ulster Constabulary and pattern reforms to highlight outstanding issues as well as achievements.

Former police ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire said independent oversight of the force was still subject to heavy criticism.

"It [the watchdog] is still under challenge by a wide variety of stakeholders who don't like the work that it produces."

A recruitment campaign started this week as part of the commemorations – and the force admitted it will take at least another decade to get equal numbers from the sectarian divide. Only 24% of last year’s recruits were Catholic. This was a key issue in the Patten review which led to PSNI’s creation.

Chair of the Police Federation Mark Lindsay said: “We’ve far from achieved that and, I think, recently, we’ve seen politics brought into policing decisions more than ever.”

The force’s current leadership is more optimistic and this week claimed the force is now radically different.

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said: "There are so many things that are different for constables joining now, we are more visible, whenever I was a constable we very rarely drove around in a marked police car, now most of our police cars are marked.”

Chief Constable Simon Byrne used his monthly report to set out other achievements and plans for the future – including an overhaul of a police estate that is still rooted in the era of The Troubles.

He said: “We increasingly invest in visible, accessible and responsive neighbourhood policing. Our community-focused policing style finds its origins in Patten, and is committed to securing widespread support for policing in the interests of public safety.

“Looking ahead, we are transforming our connectivity with the public and indeed each other through our digital policing programme. Our police buildings and estate are ready for modernisation, rationalisation and increased accessibility, itself undoubtedly one of the unfinished pieces of Patten business.”

One of his first jobs after taking over was signing off on new uniforms that included new badges. Even this led to challenge from community leaders.

But CC Byrne said the move towards normalisation would be achieved through many small steps: “Tangible changes such as new fleet, new uniform and new equipment mark a step change in how we begin the next decade of our history.”

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