Photo by Artur Widak
Artillery Row

Appeasing lawlessness

The chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland is more interested in pandering than effective policing

Northern Ireland was formerly policed by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, whose bravery, professionalism and moderation under fire earned it a George Cross and prevented the province from descending into all-out civil war during the Troubles. Thanks to the “peace process”, and, in particular, Chris Patten’s determination to deliver a force acceptable to Sinn Fein, it is now served by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

This organisation suffers from many common drawbacks of modern policing. Its officers seem to spend more time cavorting at “pride” marches, jiving with young people at dance festivals and making “humorous” social media posts than arresting burglars or investigating crimes. Under its current Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, the PSNI’s reputation as a fair and effective police service has taken a particular pasting.

During the coronavirus lockdown, for example, the force policed Covid rules strictly for the rest of the population, but cooperated with Sinn Fein as it organised a huge funeral for the IRA thug, Bobby Storey, in breach of regulations. More recently, the PSNI refused to stop or even monitor a “show of strength” by the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) in Londonderry. Members of this 80s-throwback, “revolutionary socialist” terrorist faction, which is now principally involved in dealing drugs, assembled in front of a paramilitary mural in balaclavas and fired shots in the air. To public derision, Superintendent Catherine Magee explained that the police could not even muster a helicopter to monitor proceedings, because of a fuel shortage and cloudy weather.

South Armagh retains a reputation for people smuggling, fuel-laundering and organised crime

These were just two incidents among a steady stream during which the PSNI seemed to ignore or even facilitate law-breaking by republican groups or individuals. Now, a new report into policing in South Armagh, an IRA stronghold once termed Northern Ireland’s “Bandit Country”, shows how far the force is prepared to go to appease pro-terror sentiment and lawlessness. The review, which was commissioned and endorsed by Byrne, shows the chief constable is more interested in pandering to Sinn Fein than effective policing.

During the worst years of the Troubles, 123 soldiers and 75 civilians were killed in South Armagh’s grim badlands. Between 1970 and 1993, 30 police officers were murdered there by republicans. Today, the area retains a reputation for people smuggling, fuel-laundering and organised crime, most of it involving current or former republican terrorists. It is, without doubt, among the most challenging places to police in the United Kingdom.

For that reason, when Byrne visited Crossmaglen Police Station on Christmas Day 2019, he was photographed with officers bearing police-issued automatic rifles. Predictably, Irish nationalist politicians reacted with outrage when this image was posted on Twitter. It may have reflected the dangers faced by police officers in Crossmaglen, but they claimed the photo made the settlement look like a “wild west” frontier town.

The worst perpetrators of violence have been allowed to recast themselves as victims

Rather than dismiss these comments as silly political mischief-making, Byrne commissioned the lengthy review into policing in South Armagh that was published yesterday. It includes plans to ban officers from routinely carrying rifles in the area, minimise the number of officers attending call-outs and phase out unmarked police cars. These operational decisions may be foolhardy, but the main causes for concern are the report’s attitude to historical terrorist violence, its proposals for cross-border policing and its commissioning of evidence from Provo-friendly sources.

The review’s most emotive section recommends moving police memorials to “an agreed space… away from public areas and main thoroughfares” in police stations. Tributes to murdered officers, it reasons, are viewed “differently” by different communities. This capitulation to pro-terrorist sentiment epitomises much of what has gone wrong in Northern Ireland since the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Far from being asked to accept responsibility or show contrition for their actions, the worst perpetrators of violence have been allowed to recast themselves as victims and claim validity for their warped accounts of the Troubles. If, after so many years of the “peace process”, some communities still view the murder of police officers “differently” to decent, ordinary people, then politicians, institutions and wider society should confront that failure rather than pandering to appalling attitudes.

Many of the report’s conclusions focus on encouraging “…joint rather than parallel… operations by the PSNI and An Garda Siochana [the Republic’s police force]” to provide a “seamless cross border policing model”. The document claims that “at a minimum”, there should be agreement to allow the two forces to continue “hot pursuit” operations across the border. It also recommends a swathe of “accountability” procedures and governance arrangements that raise enormously sensitive issues around jurisdiction and sovereignty  at a time when unionists are already furious about the erection of a trade border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

This crass intrusion on politics caused the DUP leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, to describe the review as “the most politically naive document ever endorsed by a chief constable”.

Seemingly touchy, feely jargon actually entrenches republican dominance over communities close to the Irish border

It’s debatable whether the report is naive or something much worse. Almost incredibly, it was based on surveys conducted by a group called Community Restorative Justice (CRJ). In an article for the Irish Times, the former taioseach, Garrett Fitzgerald, previously noted the organisation was “established by Sinn Fein”. He alleged that the CRJ was involved in intimidating families to try to make them leave Northern Ireland. Its director, Harry Maguire, was convicted of murdering two army corporals during an IRA funeral in Belfast. While there were many appalling incidents during the Troubles, this attack is remembered particularly vividly for its savagery and inhumanity.

Thirty-three years later, the PSNI is taking its advice on policing republican areas from the type of people who were once killing officers. According to this way of thinking, all its operations in South Armagh, whether they involve speed checks or fighting organised crime, must “respond to community priorities” rather than operational necessities or justice. This seemingly touchy, feely jargon actually entrenches republican dominance over communities close to the Irish border and recognises who really runs these areas.

The PSNI claims its review is aimed at improving its ability to perform routine police work. On the 11th of August 1970, Constables Samuel Donaldson and Robert Millar were doing just this kind of routine police work in South Armagh. The two young men responded to reports of a stolen car, but while they investigated, they were blown up by a booby trap bomb planted by republican terrorists. When they died the next day, they became the first two RUC officers killed by the Provisional IRA.

Now the chief constable of the PSNI wants to forget them, as well as other policemen and women, in case their memorials offend the type of people who perpetrated or supported their murders. He should be thoroughly ashamed, and everyone in Northern Ireland should be concerned when pro-terror attitudes are sanitised and normalised, so many years after 1998.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover