Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

Will waste of public money on G8 ever be questioned?

Security measures: Unused water cannon at the G8
Security measures: Unused water cannon at the G8
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott

Whoever was responsible for last month's G8 security operation in Fermanagh should be charged with wasting police time. In fairness, a charge of wasting public money should be added to the indictment. But frittering away public money is not a crime, yet.

In the Assembly on Monday, Sammy Wilson put on his serious face as he revealed that the exercise to protect the G8 leaders "did not come for free". Right enough, Sammy.

The cost to the Northern Ireland exchequer was £14.5m "which the Executive agreed to allocate to the Department of Justice". (Interesting use of "allocate" there.) Trade and Industry, Regional Development and Health were allocated £5.1m in "additional costs".

That's £19.6m – compared to Sammy's advance estimate of £6m. He was off-target by £13.6m: the damage was more than three times what we'd been told it would be. Has there ever been a cost-overrun the like of it?

So there was an explosion of outrage in the Assembly? The Speaker forced to intervene to save Sammy from further punishment? A barrage of demands for a full explanation?

No, no, no.

Compare and contrast with the angry response to the "scandal" of the Housing Executive's £18m over-payment on maintenance contracts. Nelson McCausland was "astounded" at "the level of incompetence". The money "could have been used to build around 200 much-needed social homes."

Two hundred houses for £18m. A hundred and fifty for £13.6m ... But no questions asked.

There are obvious differences between the two cases. But each landed us with a huge loss of revenue which would have been better spent on other projects. In one case, there are calls across the political spectrum for every penny to be accounted for. In the other, the loss is shrugged off amid spaced-out speculation about a tourism bonanza and torrents of foreign investment.

It had been pointed out here and elsewhere in advance of the summit that there was no evidence of any such benefit to other locations where the G8 had met. But the absence of evidence wasn't to be allowed to disrupt the maundering dream.

Did the scale of the security operation result from an intelligence failure of unprecedented magnitude? Or, more innocently, from run-of-the-mill incompetence? Or from something else entirely?

PSNI Chief Inspector Brendan McGuigan may have given a hint when he suggested last week that the G8 operation could be used as a template for future occasions of potential disorder.

The fact that 3,500 police and "special forces", including "covert patrols of armed Ghurkas", had been brought in from Britain suggests that the developments envisaged didn't relate only to the North.

"There was custody provision," said CI McGuigan. "Doctors available to examine arrested persons (and) courts available all over Northern Ireland to deal with an influx of arrested persons." Plus 14 judges on standby, all road-works stopped for 11 days, miles of razor wire strung across Fermanagh, etc, etc.

There was no intelligence which could have led Chief Constable Matt Baggott to conclude that an operation on anything like this scale was called for.

Enniskillen march organisers had forecast an attendance of around 2,000. Trades unions focused on Belfast rather than on mobilising for Fermanagh. War on Want, Amnesty, Trocaire and a range of church groups organised a concert in Botanic Gardens. None of this posed serious threat to anyone.

As for the "thousands" of anarchists headed here intent on mayhem ... There was no group anywhere in Britain or Europe organising any such influx. Police forces will have known this, having now infiltrated even the most cuddly of protest groups. Ferry and airplane companies recorded no unusual levels of bookings to the North.

Claims that the main fear was not of protesters but of "dissident" republicans make no sense, either. Hundreds of specially prepared cells, judges on standby etc are not what's needed to confront an armed group.

In its annual review published last week, Criminal Justice Northern Ireland reported that "Senior [PSNI] officers also acknowledged ... that some parts of the organisation were 'fatigued' by recent deployments ... " Indeed. Dandering around Enniskillen on the day, one was aware of groups of police officers at every corner and in shop doorways, yawning.

Members of the policing board should require Mr Baggott to account for the expenditure on G8 security, but they probably won't.

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