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New prison service leader must address serious problems

Sue McAllister, who has announced her departure as director general of the prison service in Northern Ireland, was in charge during an exceptionally difficult period for the organisation.

During her four years in post, two prison officers were murdered by dissident republicans. David Black was shot dead in November 2012 and earlier this year Adrian Ismay died of his injuries after a booby trap bomb exploded under his van as he drove to work.

These terrible crimes came against a backdrop of dissident unrest in Maghaberry, the continued threat to staff and a series of damning reports highlighting serious deficiencies at the jail.

In 2015, an inspection report identified an `unsafe and unstable' environment at Maghaberry which was described as the most dangerous jail in the UK with conditions branded as Dickensian.

This devastating assessment was undoubtedly a low point in terms of the management of the prison service where it had long been recognised that urgent reform was required.

A follow up inspection earlier this year did show that improvements had been made but the clear message was that this progress was fragile and much more work needed to be done to bring the jail up to the necessary standard.

It has to be acknowledged that changing the culture of a large organisation is a major undertaking and cannot be achieved overnight.

Mrs McAllister said her focus has been on leading transformational reform of the service and that role had come to a natural end.

Only time will tell just how successful that process has been but attention will now switch to finding her successor.

This will be a key appointment and no one in this sector will underestimate the enormous challenges that lie ahead.

However, it is absolutely vital that the new leader of the Northern Ireland Prison Service gets to grips with the many issues identified in critical reports and ensures longlasting progress on delivering change.

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