An unprecedented threat from dissident republicans against probation staff throughout Northern Ireland has been condemned, with calls for its immediate withdrawal.
Around 400 staff were informed about the sinister threat at meetings in Belfast, Londonderry, Ballymena, Portadown and Maghaberry Prison yesterday morning, which has resulted in the threat level against some members being elevated from low to substantial, particularly in republican areas.
The Probation Board said the increase in risk does not apply uniformly across PBNI and attacks against the majority of staff and premises remain unlikely. PBNI has been working closely over the last 24 hours with the Department of Justice and the PSNI, who will now step in to provide personal security at some sites.
Chief executive Cheryl Lamont vowed that work will continue despite the threat.
"Everything we do is about protecting people and ensuring there are fewer victims of crime. Therefore it is extremely disappointing that we have been informed that the level of threat of attacks against PBNI has been assessed as having increased," she said.
Northern Ireland's Chief Social Worker Sean Holland said: "I am deeply concerned and disappointed at the fact the probation service has been informed the level of risk of attack against it has increased.
"Social workers in probation play a key role in working to change people’s lives and make Northern Ireland safer.
"They have been carrying out their role across without threat for over 40 years and this development is of concern. I want to express my support for all PBNI staff at this time.”
General secretary of the Nipsa trade union Alison Millar condemned the threat "in the strongest possible terms".
"I call on those responsible to withdraw this threat immediately and allow our members in probation to provide the valuable support necessary in rehabilitating offenders, many of whom have very complex needs," she said. Local official Dooley Harte vowed to work with Probation Board management to ensure all necessary actions were taken to ensure staff are protected.
Mr Dooley said staff were "understandably concerned" despite a firm commitment from management to conduct an immediate review of security and advise staff regarding their own personal security.
Political representatives united to voice their disgust at the heightened threat level and demand its withdrawal.
Former Justice Minister Claire Sugden expressed deep concern over the "cowardly" threat and warned that people were taking advantage of the political vacuum.
"We need to be aware of the problem that exists when there is no political leadership," she added.
Former chair of the Assembly justice committee Paul Frew insisted that probation staff deserved the full support of the whole community.
"I would hope that staff will not be deterred from continuing their work and that any assistance they need in terms of security will be provided to them," the DUP MLA added.
Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly said the Probation Board played a vital role assisting with the rehabilitation of offenders.
"That is in stark contrast to the actions of the groups issuing these threats, because they bring nothing but fear and misery to communities," he said.