Sir Ronnie to stay on until March after board reaches compromise

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The Independent Online

The fledgling Policing Board of Northern Ireland reached an uneasy compromise yesterday on the retirement of the Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan.

In a move decided by the casting vote of the board's chairman Professor Desmond Rea, Sir Ronnie, who has been much criticised for his force's Omagh bombing investigation, was asked to stay on in the post until the end of March.

Since a successor is not expected to be appointed until the autumn, this means Sir Ronnie's deputy, Colin Cramphorn, will fill the post on an acting basis for up to six months.

Nationalist representatives on the board, as well as most of its independent members, had wanted Sir Ronnie to depart on Thursday next week, as soon as his period of notice was up. He himself is said to have wished to remain for a longer period. The new departure date means he will not be in post on 5 April, a milestone in the process of police reform, which he has overseen.

The first recruits to the new Police Service of Northern Ireland complete their training on that date, which is also when a new badge and uniform will be introduced.

The question of when Sir Ronnie should go turned into an implicit vote of confidence in him, with Unionists generally in his favour but nationalists seeking his early departure.

Seven Unionists and two independents voted to allow him to stay on until the end of March, while two nationalists and seven independents opposed the motion. Professor Rea, who is regarded as a moderate Unionist, voted in favour while the nationalist deputy chairman, Denis Bradley, was against.

Board member Alex Attwood, who is chairman of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, said restrictions had been placed on Sir Ronnie, whom he described as a "lame duck Chief Constable". He added that he was only saved by the casting vote of the chairman, and the extra four weeks was a mere figleaf.

He said Sir Ronnie could not comment on the work of the police ombudsman, who delivered an extremely critical report on his force's handling of the Omagh bomb inquiry.

Fred Cobain, an Ulster Unionist board member, said: "I am surprised at Alex Attwood using language like that, but we are talking about four weeks and there has to be a smooth changeover. The board had a constructive debate about this issue and there was no rancour involved."

Since the board is an important part of the new policing arrangements put in place in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, the authorities are anxious that it carries out its supervisory role without damaging splits.

Mr Bradley described yesterday's proceedings as "a mature debate without rancour, a good debate". The official hope is that the board, which has already dealt surprisingly deftly with a number of highly contentious issues, can establish a culture of agreeing to disagree on such matters.