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Editor's Viewpoint: Police in battle to regain upper hand

Published 30/04/2010

The groundswell of unease over the ability of the PSNI to effectively tackle dissident terrorists is gathering momentum.

And the latest criticism of the force's response to recent bomb attacks should concern the Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, and his senior commanders.

For, as stories in this newspaper yesterday and today demonstrate, the rebukes come from a very senior and experienced former police officer and from the Army.

The former police officer, Norman Baxter, who led the Omagh bomb inquiry, said the PSNI had effectively abandoned the public to the risk of death or serious injury by its slow response to a recent bomb attack in Newtownhamilton - the area was cleared by local firemen. And he questioned whether the Chief Constable should seek military aid to combat the dissidents.

A security briefing drawn up after the bombing of Palace Barracks, MI5's headquarters in Northern Ireland, said the PSNI response was slower than expected and there was a "hesitancy" to clear civilian accommodation near the military base.

Those must be wounding words to PSNI officers. No-one doubts their courage or determination to stand in the front line against terrorism. It is accepted that dissidents want to kill police officers above all else and that many officers have been forced to move home because of the threats to their lives. And no-one wants them to act recklessly when alerted to a potential terrorist incident.

Yet it is evident that intelligence gathering on the dissidents is far from perfect, that there are insufficient police officers on the ground and that PSNI presence in some rural areas along the border is much less than demanded by local people. The dissidents have scored a partial victory by making people question police tactics and capability. Mr Baggott and his advisors must move swiftly to counter the dissidents and to reassure the public that the PSNI is strategically and operationally up to the job expected of the force.

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