Police officers from Scotland and the rest of Britain will be asked to volunteer for seven-day emergency tours in Northern Ireland if there is an upsurge of violence or civil disorder.
However, the Scottish Police Federation has issued a warning that its officers could become targets for dissident republicans if they are called up.
Officers will be provided with secure accommodation guarded by an armed response unit, which would also protect them while they travel in Northern Ireland.
Most volunteers are expected to come from Scotland.
The Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is currently working on joint protocols through its public order and public safety working group.
The Belfast Telegraph has obtained minutes of the last meeting, on August 14, when Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay represented the PSNI. The minutes show that a number of issues have still to be resolved.
These include safety protocols, training and financial arrangements if a police officer is injured here, or targeted on his/her return home as a result of an incident here.
While such details remain unresolved, police federations across the UK are opposing any deployment.
In a letter, these federations say that “it is unacceptable to deploy police officers from the mainland UK to frontline duties in Northern Ireland... because of the very volatile and demanding circumstances which characterise that policing environment”.
However, the federations are attending meetings to see if their issues can be resolved.
“The bottom line is that, as a staff association, we would never see our colleagues in Northern Ireland left in a situation where nobody is going to go and give them a hand,” Brian Docherty, the chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, told this paper.
Mr Docherty added: “We have identified a number of risk areas. Officers in the PSNI routinely carry firearms, but very few of our boys and girls are firearms-trained. Right away you would have folks going across there who could become a target by any dissident group who wanted to make a name for themselves.”
Another major problem is what is termed “residual threat”.
Mr Docherty pointed out that there were strong links between extremists in the west of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
He explained that if a Scottish officer “was involved in an incident where a civilian was injured or even died as a result of police activity in Northern Ireland”, then this could cause serious implications for the officer’s family.
He added: “Very quickly officers could be identified. You then have to consider rehousing, relocating etc etc. Who pays for that?”
Last night Terry Spence of the NI Police Federation said: “We will take mutual aid from wherever we can get it but there must be the proper mechanisms in place to ensure police officers’ lives are not in danger if they come here.”
Police numbers have been dramatically cut from 12,500, with 13,000 troops in support in 1998, to around 6,500 today. That figure is still seen as high when taking into account our relatively small population, but the dissident threat and the marching season can still leave our Police Service stretched. So far, the PSNI has attempted to fill the gap through overtime, by bringing back retired officers to do office duties, by civilianising many posts and by relying on specialist undercover military back-up in bomb disposal and surveillance.
A logical plan for a worst case scenario
By Deborah McAleese
Police forces across England, Scotland and Wales can call upon each other to provide mutual aid in an emergency situation. PSNI officers have also previously deployed across the water and worked with officers there on public order events.
When it comes to Northern Ireland however, the idea of outside police officers providing assistance to the PSNI has proved to be somewhat controversial, with Police Federations on both sides of the water raising concerns over health and safety because of Northern Ireland’s terrorist threat.
The idea of mutual aid is not new, with the PSNI already in receipt of support from counter-terrorism units in England and Wales and joint training has taken place between mainland officers and the PSNI over recent years,
But new arrangements have been set in place to fill a gap in short-notice mutual aid for Northern Ireland, especially for counter-terrorism and public order. Under these arrangements, the PSNI could quickly call up officers from other UK forces to assist in its response to dissident terrorists and riots.
No unit on mutual aid would be deployed without PSNI support or to an area where the threat and risk was too great. It would also be done on a voluntary basis. During the marching season this year a number of unarmed officers from other UK forces were put on standby to provide temporary back office support so that PSNI officers could be freed up to help police contentious parades.
Over the past 10 years, the number of PSNI officers has reduced from over 13,000 to under 7,500. Given the lower police numbers and budget restraints, mutual aid assistance would appear to be the logical response to a worst case scenario. It is understandable that Police Federations have concerns given the severe terrorist threat in the province, with the Police Federation in Scotland particularly vocal this week.
But Scottish police officers provided mutual aid during serious disorder in parts of England last summer.