Sinn Féin’s South Belfast MLA has said it is too early to discuss whether the PSNI’s chief constable should attend next year’s ard fheis but warned “work on the ground” is more important than his presence at the conference.

Alex Maskey was speaking after Chief Constable Matt Baggott stated last week he would consider attending the event, which is scheduled to be held in May 2012 in Killarney.

“I am really trying to find ways to take personal policing into the heart of areas where people have doubt. Attending the Sinn Féin ard fheis is one way we could do that,” said Mr Baggott.

But Mr Maskey, who was one of the party’s first members of the Policing Board, said the PSNI’s track record with nationalists would have to improve first before many members accepted the chief constable there.

“Sinn Féin is working with the PSNI to deliver the changes of the Good Friday Agreement and while quite a lot of progress has been made over the last few years, there is a long way to go yet.

“There has been an issue around building confidence in the nationalist community and a speech at the ard fheis is not going to address that. What is required is for the PSNI and the chief constable to deliver on the ground in these communities.

“There have been setbacks in recent times in terms of how the police have responded to issues like the continued use of plastic bullets or some of the stop and search policies employed by them. They need to be addressed before the nationalist community has the type of confidence in the police that is really needed.”

Mr Maskey would not be drawn on whether he backed the idea.

“Apart from the date and venue, there is nothing set yet about next year’s ard fheis and nothing has been prepared for it. It’s for members to decide party policy for the upcoming period and as such, we invite locals to put forward motions and invite who they wish.

“It will take shape over the next few months and we will consider all ideas put to us but no plans are ever set in stone this early. We will consult with members to see what they want and what they need from the ard fheis and then take it from there.”

At the 2007 ard fheis, Sinn Féin members voted to back policing here. An offer from then Chief Constable Hugh Orde to attend the conference was rejected by the party.