Monday, September 11, 2023

In Northern Ireland, data breach leaves Catholic police officers at risk

Catholic Police Guild of Northern Ireland (@CatholicGuildNi) / X

Catholic officers in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) have been asking if they should bring their personal firearms to mass, such is their concern in the wake of a disastrous data breach, MPs have been told.

PSNI officers and civilian staff feel frightened and betrayed by their employer, members of representative bodies told the House of Commons’ Northern Ireland affairs committee, and are looking towards the UK government to provide large-scale funding to help.

They provided what the committee’s chair described as sobering testimony after the resignation on Monday of the PSNI chief constable, Simon Byrne, after weeks of pressure over a series of issues including the breach involving the personal information of more than 10,000 officers and support staff.

“We are in a dark space. We are in a downward spiral,” said Liam Kelly, the chair of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, who argued that the lack of a functioning devolved government at Stormont was just one problem in terms of moving on from the crisis.

“Despite it being 25 years on from the Good Friday agreement, we are finding we are having to police against the backdrop of a severe terrorist threat,” he said, adding that it would not be impossible to “put the genie back in the bottle” as a result of the data breach.

He said morale among police officers had already been “plummeting rapidly” and recruitment had been a challenge even before the breach, in which a dataset containing the personal details of officers and staff was mistakenly released in response to a freedom of information request.

“There is a crisis and I don’t think that even if we see the return of a Northern Ireland executive, the money is not there in its coffers. We need Westminster and the UK government to step in here.”

Supt Gerry Murray, the chair of the Catholic Police Guild, told the committee that the PSNI was still dealing with a situation where policing was “not in the DNA” of Catholic officers.

“We have had officers resigning. Our members are frightened, scared and have no idea of what tomorrow will bring for them,” he said. “I have had instances where young Catholic officers have been asking me do they carry their personal protection weapons when they go to mass. The advice I have given is ‘yes you do’.”

The committee’s chair, Simon Hoare, expressed his disappointment that the Northern Ireland Policing Board felt it had been unable to attend the session and said it “should be in no doubt” that it would have to answer questions before MPs.

Byrne’s resignation was announced on Monday after a string of controversies, which also included a critical high court judgment that said the disciplining of two officers following an arrest at a Troubles memorial event in Belfast in 2021 was unlawful.

The committee is investigating the data breach, and representatives of the policing board, the oversight body for the PSNI, had been expected to appear before MPs on Tuesday.

However, the board withdrew from the hearing after Byrne’s resignation. 

A public session of the board scheduled for Thursday has also been cancelled.