Sinn Fein leader attends police graduation in first for Northern Ireland

By Thomson Reuters Feb 9, 2024 | 6:53 AM

BELFAST (Reuters) – Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill attended a police graduation ceremony on Friday in a first for her Sinn Fein party, which has in the past been cool in its support for the force established following the region’s 1998 peace deal.

The Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of violence between Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland, pro-British unionists and the British Army.

But some in Sinn Fein complained that the new force had too much in common with the RUC and stopped short of encouraging Catholics to join.

In 2007 the party agreed to join the policing board, which supervises the activities of the PSNI, and in 2020 publicly backed a recruitment campaign for the service for the first time.

The decision to attend the ceremony is “a very welcome and hugely positive gesture,” PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher told BBC Northern Ireland.

Boutcher warmly greeted O’Neill as she arrived to the Belfast barracks ahead of the ceremony.

The visit comes days after O’Neill became the British region’s first Irish nationalist First Minister and promised to reach out to British unionist rivals and be a “first minister for all”.

Justice Minister Naomi Long, from the cross-community Alliance Party, said O’Neill’s attendance, was “probably long overdue, but certainly a good start in terms of showing commitment to policing and justice.”

(Reporting by Amanda Ferguson and Conor Humphries; Editing by Sachin Ravikumar)