By Cate McCurry (PA)
The attendance of Sinn Fein’s Stormont First Minister at a police graduation ceremony is a “hugely positive gesture”, the region’s chief constable has said.
Jon Boutcher said Michelle O’Neill’s presence at the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) event in Belfast was “very welcome”.
The ceremony on Friday is the first one attended by Sinn Fein, 23 years after the formation of the PSNI as part of peace process reforms.
Mr Boutcher greeted Ms O’Neill and DUP deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly on arrival at the PSNI training college on Friday morning ahead of the event.
Alliance party justice minister Naomi Long arrived a short time later.
Policing Board member and Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly also attended the passing out ceremony at the police training college in east Belfast.
The presence of representatives from the republican party comes amid police concerns at stalling efforts to boost Catholic representation in the PSNI.
The targeting of Catholic officers by dissident republicans has been cited as a key factor in falling numbers of applications from members of the nationalist community.
In 2020, Ms O’Neill became the first senior Sinn Fein figure to attend a recruitment campaign launch for the PSNI, posing with posters showing policing as a positive career choice.
Mr Boutcher said the latest gesture by Ms O’Neill was “very welcome and hugely positive gesture”.
“With the restoration of the Assembly, now is the time to grasp the opportunity to work together, rather than have policing as a political football,” he said ahead of the event.
“I am determined for the security and safety of the people in Northern Ireland, that such future events will have the officer numbers we need to keep Northern Ireland safe, rather than the small yet important number of officers attesting today.
“The reduction of officer and staff numbers and lack of pay awards is the message that everyone should be focused upon.”
DUP politicians have welcomed Ms O’Neill’s attendance at the passing out ceremony, but said it was “overdue” and urged Sinn Fein to play a more active role in PSNI recruitment.
“Twenty-three years later, it is better late than never,” DUP MP Gregory Campbell said on Thursday.
Ms O’Neill’s attendance at the PSNI College comes after she pledged to be a leader for all.
As she became the first nationalist First Minister of Northern Ireland last Saturday, she vowed to represent “our whole community” and described the region as “a changing portrait”.
DUP deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly, Chief Constable Jon Boutcher, Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O'Neill, Policing Board member and Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly and Policing Board Chair Deirdre Toner attending a PSNI graduation ceremony at the PSNI College (Photo by PA)