Northern Ireland police chief resigns after controversies including huge data breach

LONDON (AP) — Northern Ireland’s top police officer resigned Monday following a series of controversies that plagued the police force, including what he described as an “industrial scale” data breach.

The Northern Ireland Policing Board confirmed that Simon Byrne has resigned as chief constable, with immediate effect.

Byrne faced growing pressure to step down since personal data on all serving members of the police force were mistakenly published last month in response to a freedom of information request.

The details included the surnames, initials, location and departments for around 10,000 officers and other personnel. Police said dissident Irish republicans claimed to be in possession of information about police officers following the incident.

The breach was particularly sensitive given the delicate security situation in Northern Ireland, which is still trying to overcome decades of sectarian violence known as “The Troubles.” Twenty-five years after a peace agreement largely ended the violence, many police officers continue to shield their identities because of continuing threats from dissident members of the republican and unionist communities.

Byrne came under more scrutiny last week when a High Court judge ruled that two junior officers were unlawfully disciplined for an arrest made at a Troubles commemoration event in 2021.

The judge said the officers were disciplined to allay any threat that Sinn Féin could withdraw its support for policing in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein has insisted there was no such threat.

Byrne had said that he would not resign and that he was considering an appeal against the court ruling.

But in a statement issued Monday, Byrne said it was “time for someone new” to lead the force.

“The last few days have been very difficult for all concerned,” he said. “Regardless of the rights and wrongs, it is now time for someone new to lead this proud and resolute organization.”

Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Byrne's resignation provided a chance for authorities to rebuild lost confidence with the public and within the police force.

“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," Donaldson said.

The Police Federation of Northern Ireland, which represents rank-and-file officers, said last month it had been inundated with calls from worried officers following the data breach. Liam Kelly, the federation's chairperson, said morale in the force was never lower.

“Whoever succeeds Mr. Byrne has a mountain to climb to address the cultural deficiencies, rebuild confidence and restore credibility," Kelly said.