How damaging was Mary Lou McDonald’s gaffe on the appointment of the next chief constable?

Posted By: February 23, 2019

Mary Lou McDonald stokes PSNI recruitment row  
Newton Emerson. Irish News.Belfast. Saturday, February 23, 2019 

The initial judgment of Alliance Policing Board member John Blair should have been the end of the matter. He said the Sinn Féin president’s claim that she knew of no suitable PSNI candidate had been “careless and irresponsible.”

Sinn Féin Policing Board member Gerry Kelly quickly qualified McDonald’s remarks, albeit with the near-comical explanation that she knows no PSNI officers, which should have helped close the matter down.

But then McDonald reopened it, accusing her critics of “political huffing and puffing” and belligerently refusing to apologize, even when the Equality Commission intervened. Sackcloth and ashes were hardly necessary: for want of a few calming words, a crisis is now building. Northern Ireland really does not need another party leader incapable of backing down.


The worst aspect of McDonald’s carelessness is that it has distracted from the disclosure scandal that provoked her. The PSNI failed to supply significant information on the Sean Graham’s massacre and many other loyalist murders after a first search of its systems.

Significant progress is now in sight on this issue. The Criminal Justice Inspectorate is to prioritize an independent inquiry into how PSNI records are disclosed to the Police Ombudsman, with a report due in six months. Focus is turning to the basic practical problem of trawling through the PSNI’s vast warehouse of Troubles records, which contains 44 million pages of paper, microfilm and microfiche files, as well as multiple redundant computer systems. Far from being a prosaic avoidance of political concerns, this promises an objective dispelling of much of the corrosive mystique and suspicion around uncovering information on the past.


The more Sammy Wilson rages, the most obvious it is that the rest of the DUP has gone quiet. Gregory Campbell is the latest of the party’s MPs to give the game away, tortuously conceding the DUP will accept the backstop without a reopening of the withdrawal agreement as it is the “destination” that matters, not the “mechanism”. The fact is that Brexit has given the DUP the fright of its life and as the March 29 deadline approaches it is bracing itself for its biggest U-turn since the St Andrews Agreement. Its main problem in the meantime is that its erstwhile Tory allies in the hardline European Research Group (ERG) remain hell-bent on no deal. They voted against the prime minister’s Brexit strategy in the Commons last week, while the DUP voted for. This official parting of the ways was obscured by the pointlessness of the vote and the clearly duplicitous nature of the strategy but the rupture will be plain soon enough. The only choice the DUP has left to make is how much of a public show of reluctance it should put on while giving in to the inevitable.


The DUP has chosen not to reselect Ards and North Down councilor Tom Oliver, who broke ranks with it last December to support LGBT Awareness Week. The party has reselected Oliver’s colleague Alistair Cathcart, who voted with him in December, so this appears to be more of a punishment for general outspokenness, including an online row last week with suspended former DUP minister Jim Wells.

Whatever the internal machinations it is a needlessly counterproductive signal to send, not just across Northern Ireland but to North Down in particular. The DUP has high hopes of taking the Westminster seat from independent unionist Lady Sylvia Hermon. Sacking a high-profile councilor so in tune with her liberal voters is not a strategic move.


Reforming the petition of concern is Alliance’s big idea to restore devolution. This theory is being put to the test at Belfast City Council, whose rules and the current balance of power make it, in effect, Stormont without the petition of concern.

According to Alliance, Republicans are boycotting the council’s budget and party leader committees after not getting things all their own way on adding statues around City Hall. Sinn Féin wanted republicans honored, unionists wanted no republicans honored, so Alliance brokered a compromise honoring nationalists and offering a further compromise of paired republican and unionist statues. Having lost the democratic vote, Sinn Féin has now extended its policy of abstentionism to local government level. Would replicating all this at Stormont level work out any better?


RHI is back in the headlines after civil servants decided to keep the scheme running in line with the first law of indirect rule, which is to do what is least likely to get you sued. Keep an eye out next month for headlines about the biogas scheme, a similar green energy scandal described as worse than RHI when first exposed by the media last year – in essence, it is RHI plus massive pollution. The Audit Office vowed to examine it when the story broke, work on that has begun and the scope of the investigation will be unveiled shortly, with a full report by the second half of this year. Parallels with RHI are among the topics to be investigated.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, the RHI inquiry report will be published.