Brexit border “would make sitting ducks of Northern Ireland police”

Posted By: January 17, 2017

Head of Northern Irish police federation says border posts would be propaganda gifts and targets for dissident republicans

Henry McDonald Ireland correspondent. The Guardian. Sunday, January 15, 2017

A post-Brexit hard border on the island of Ireland would make police officers sitting ducks for dissident republican attacks, rank and file members of the Northern Ireland force have said.

New customs posts and other installations along the 325-mile frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would become “propaganda gifts” and physical targets for the New IRA and other groups opposed to the peace process, the staff association representing more than 90% of police officers in Northern Ireland has said.

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland also expressed fears that a reinforced border would seriously undermine improving relations between frontier communities and serving police officers.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mark Lindsay, the chairman of the federation, which represents around 6,600 officers, pointed out that the dissident republican terror threat was still ranked as severe. This meant an attempt to murder or maim police officers could happen at any time, he said.

Lindsay said the threat would be even higher if officers were deployed at customs posts or crossing points to monitor the flow trade and people across the only land frontier between the UK and an EU state.

“We are still operating under what the government says is a severe threat, which means an attack on our members could happen at any time and is highly likely,” he said.

“If we are saying in the future that police officers could be deployed to customs posts and other fixed points on a hardened border then they would become static targets. They would in effect become sitting ducks for the terrorists.”

The police rank and file’s warning comes in a week of major political turbulence in Northern Ireland. As the row over a bungled green energy scheme costing hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money pushes the Stormont assembly to the edge of collapse, the Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, said on Sunday that the UK government did not want to reimpose direct rule from London on the region.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr show, he ruled out joint authority over Northern Ireland between the British and Irish governments if the parties fail to reach a deal after elections that now appear inevitable.

“I’m not contemplating any alternatives to devolved government in Northern Ireland,” he said. “That is my absolute and resolute faith … My responsibility is to see that we are working with each of the parties to ensure that we are not looking at greater division.” 

Brokenshire stressed, however, that the region will not be excluded from Brexit negotiations that are due to begin by the end of March.

Lindsay said his federation was not making a political comment on Brexit, but “simply raising practical, operational policing concerns”.

“Because on a very pragmatic level we wouldn’t even have the numbers to police a hard border. We are between 600 to 700 officers short of the peace-time level of policing numbers as recommended under Chris Patten’s police reforms for Northern Ireland. It would simply not be practical to police a hard border.”

He said the reinforcement of a post-Brexit frontier would also be a “retrograde step in relations between the community and policing”.

“Last year one of our members, Sergeant Sam Hoey, won a Queen’s Policing Medal for services to the community in Crossmaglen, South Armagh. I remember a time during the Troubles when you could only move about that area via helicopter and with about 16 armed squaddies accompanying your police patrol,” he said.

“Sam has established brilliant relations with the local community and he and his fellow officers can move about what was once one of the most dangerous areas to police in their patrols cars, doing ordinary police work, helping the people there.

“Imagine the damage to community-police relations if officers were redeployed to fixed border installations after Brexit … The only people to gain would be the terrorists, who would see these installations as a propaganda gift.”

Lindsay pointed out that there are only a handful of Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) stations still open along the border, which stretches from outside Derry city in the north-west to Newry and the Mournes in the south-east of the province, a result of major cuts in policing resources.

“On a basic level it is simply impractical to ask the police to impose a hard border and not only because of our reduced numbers that are again, I stress, below the peace-time levels recommended by Patten.

“There are only a handful of stations at places like Newry, Crossmaglen and Strabane still operating. What’s more there are hundreds of small cross points and roads that were opened during the peace process, which are unlikely to be shut off again by ‘dragons teeth’ type barriers.

“That would be politically unacceptable to all sides of the community, so what are we saying here? Police should just do fixed  patrolling on the main routes between north and south while these smaller roads remain open? What would be the point of that?”

Lindsay said his members preferred to operate intelligence-led policing operations along the border in close cooperation with the Garda Síochána, the police force in the Irish Republic.

The New IRA, Continuity IRA and Óglaigh na hÉireann – the three main republican paramilitary organisations opposed to the peace process – have continued to target and try to kill members of the PSNI.

Since 2009 dissident republican paramilitaries have murdered two PSNI officers, constables Stephen Carroll and Ronan Kerr, and have attempted to murder at least a dozen other officers, including a number who work and live in border communities.

Dozens of others attempted sorties on police, military and civilian targets have been thwarted by north-south police cooperation and shared intelligence.

The UK prime minister, Theresa May, and her cabinet colleagues have insisted they are opposed to reimposing a hard border after Brexit that might resemble the heavily militarised frontier during the Troubles, with static army checkpoints and spy installations on hilltops over major north-south arterial routes.

Brokenshire told the Guardian in September that he preferred shifting immigration controls to the Irish Republic’s ports and airports to avoid having to introduce a hard border between north and south after the UK leaves the EU.