The top police official in Northern Ireland has resigned amid mounting scandals, raising questions about the leadership of policing in a region where law enforcement has long been a contentious issue, and prompting calls for further changes in the force.
Calls had been growing for the official, Simon Byrne, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to step down after a major data breach last month. Names, ranks and work locations were accidentally published online for every serving officer and civilian employee in a force that remains a target for militant groups, with many members keeping the details of their jobs private.
Matters came to a head on Aug. 29, when a court ruled that a decision by senior police leaders to discipline two junior officers in 2021 had been an unlawful move intended not to uphold the law, but to assuage criticism from Sinn Féin, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The party, which was once the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, favors unification with the Republic of Ireland and for decades had a heated — and deadly — relationship with the region’s policing authorities.
On Monday, Mr. Byrne announced his resignation after an emergency meeting of the Policing Board, just a week after refusing to step down in the wake of another meeting. “The last few days have been very difficult for all concerned,” he said in a statement. “Regardless of the rights and wrongs, it is now time for someone new to lead this proud and resolute organization.”
Policing has long been contentious in Northern Ireland. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, its police force for decades after the partition of Ireland in 1922, came to be associated with a crackdown on the minority Catholic population, particularly during the decades of sectarian strife known as “the Troubles” from the late 1960s to the 1990s.
The current force was established in 2001, three years after the Good Friday Agreement, the accord signed to end the fighting, which set out an independent commission to look at all areas of policing and make recommendations.
Whereas the R.U.C. was highly militarized and overwhelmingly Protestant, the current force has tried to be more representative of the community it polices — although because of a “substantial” terrorist threat from paramilitary groups opposed to the peace process, it is the only police force in the United Kingdom whose members regularly carry firearms.
But building trust between the police and the community has been a fraught process, particularly among Catholics, because of the historical conflict.
In the court ruling last week, the judge determined that the force had disciplined the officers in question — who arrested a man at a commemorative event in 2021 over a suspected breach of coronavirus restrictions — amid fears that Sinn Féin would abandon support for the police service.
The party’s top official in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, tweeted at the time that the police force was “turning a blind eye” to loyalist paramilitaries — those engaging in violence as part of a decades-long fight to maintain the region’s status as part of the United Kingdom — “while targeting those laying flowers on the anniversary of loved ones.”
Mr. Byrne had also faced criticism from within the police force in recent weeks.
In the wake of his decision to step down, the head of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, which represents officers in the region, said that there had been a major disconnect between the organization’s leadership and serving officers for some time.
Liam Kelly, who chairs the federation, said in a statement that after the “damning” court ruling “grievously undermined” Mr. Byrne’s credibility and authority, the police chief’s position had become untenable.
“Morale has never been lower in the service,” Mr. Kelly said. “There is a serious and worrying disconnect between those in leadership roles and the men and women from all community backgrounds who are the rank-and-file.”
He added, “Whoever succeeds Mr. Byrne has a mountain to climb to address the cultural deficiencies, rebuild confidence and restore credibility.”
The Superintendents’ Association of Northern Ireland, which represents police leaders in the region, said in a statement that Mr. Byrne’s resignation had ended a period of “worrying uncertainty and great disquiet” within the service.
“The negativity which has played out over the past few weeks only serves to undermine the amazing police work going on every day in communities across Northern Ireland,” it said.