Editor's Viewpoint: Police cuts are fatally mistimed
Published 15/09/2009 | 08:00
We are all familiar with the proverb: 'For the want of a nail the shoe is lost'; that small actions can result in large and undesirable consequences
. It is in these terms that the NIO's demand for £17m in cuts to the Policing Board's budget should be seen.
Granted, £17m is but a 1.4% drop in the ocean when compared to the Policing Board's £1.2bn annual budget.
And, yes, no public service can expect to be wholly exempt from the £5bn efficiency savings ordered by Chancellor Alastair Darling in response to the wider financial difficulties facing the economy.
But the NIO's proposed cuts, while tempting to justify in public policy terms, are nonetheless fatally mistimed.
Clearly, when Policing Board chairman Barry Gilligan and Acting Chief Constable Judith Gillespie meet Security Minister Paul Goggins today they're going to need more than appeals to sentiment for their case to succeed; the counter-arguments being, if anything, easier to enumerate.
However, while the Policing Board's budget is unarguably huge for a country of Northern Ireland's population, it is largely inflexible. Almost 86% of the budget is 'fixed' - more than 80% goes on salaries alone - leaving the bean-counters with little wriggle-room in which to find the required savings.
The demand for cuts of £17m begins to look vastly more draconian, then, when set beside the real figure of £168m from which they would have to be found.
Nor has the Policing Board exactly been flagrant in its stewardship of the purse-strings.
The size of the full-time reserve has been cut by a third since 2006. Overtime has been slashed by an equivalent amount.
Any significant further cost savings could only be achieved at the expense of frontline rank-and-file policing. And if there was ever a time to contemplate such a reduction, it is surely not now.
Let us not forget that it is only six months since the dissident republican murders of Sappers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar in Antrim, and Constable Stephen Carroll in Craigavon.
Their murders followed the discovery of a sophisticated bomb in Castlewellan in January - its intended target believed to be the Army base at Ballykinler. A fertiliser bomb was also uncovered in Co Fermanagh in May.
Then last month there was the audacious dissident 'checkpoint' in Meigh and only last week a fertiliser bomb bigger than that which razed Omagh was defused in Forkhill.
You can dismiss the Real IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann as 'micro-groups' with no mandate - as Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly do - but there is no doubting their ability to launch potentially devastating attacks.
Shorn of the support of the Army (and with their re-introduction a political non-starter), it ultimately falls to the Police Service, along with MI5 and Garda Intelligence, to hold the line against the dissident threat.
Likewise, the full implementation of devolution depends on a force fit for purpose, able to command the support of both communities.
Arguably, this can only succeed if police are on the ground in sufficient numbers to engender public confidence.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Paul Goggins would do well to reflect on the truth of this proverb ahead of today's meeting.
Anyone who risks the gains of the 11 years since the Good Friday Agreement for a handful of pennies should expect history to judge him harshly.