Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland police chief's Christmas gun photo totally uncalled for: Crossmaglen residents

Retired School principal Eamonn Donnelly talks to Belfast Telegraph reporter Allan Preston
Retired School principal Eamonn Donnelly talks to Belfast Telegraph reporter Allan Preston
A Crossmaglen resident of 40 years talks to Belfast Telegraph reporter Allan Preston
Anti Brexit posters in the centre of Crossmaglen
The heavily fortified Crossmaglen PSNI station
The photograph posted on Twitter by Chief Constable Simon Byrne (centre) on Christmas Day
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Crossmaglen residents have slammed the Chief Constable's Christmas day photo of himself posing with heavily armed officers as "totally uncalled for".

Simon Byrne has faced a backlash from nationalist politicians and many residents of the border village in Co Armagh since posting the photo on Twitter.

Several residents in the quiet village square yesterday said Mr Byrne was wrong to imply Crossmaglen was still dangerous and criticised the PSNI for continuing to treat the area as a militarised zone where community policing is practically "non-existent".

During the Troubles, Crossmaglen was in the heart of what became known as bandit country in south Armagh where 124 soldiers and 58 police officers were murdered by the Provisional IRA.

Yesterday, the imposing presence of Crossmaglen's heavily fortified police station was at odds with the quiet village square where a hotel and several small businesses were open for Christmas trade.

Retired primary school principal Eamonn Donnelly (74) has lived in Crossmaglen since 1971. He still remembers a time when locals knew police officers by name before the worst days of the Troubles.

"I think (Simon Byrne) got it wrong, because you don't see police with those guns going round the town any time," he said. "They're just not carrying them, so they were brought out for the occasion.

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"I remember when there was trouble here once a week. You would see a bomb going off or a shooting. But since the ceasefire there's been nothing."

He described the present relationship between the PSNI and local residents as "distant".

"Before the Troubles it was quite amicable, people would know officers by name, but since then it's been very hard to get back to normal policing."

Mr Donnelly said the Chief Constable was "over-exaggerating" when he defended the picture as showing the "stark reality" faced by police officers in the area.

"Police can walk around the town now, but during the Troubles they were hiding around town behind walls. Every three months there was a new battalion of soldiers arriving who hadn't a clue about the area."

Patrick McEneaney (35) owns Nanny Hughes' Pizzeria and the Egg cafe in the village square.

"It's very disappointing," he said.

"I don't know anyone living in Crossmaglen who doesn't feel safe. There's no terrorist threat, not in any shape or form.

"It's not nice to have the town mentioned in the same breath as guns and terrorism.

"As a business owner I can see great development in Crossmaglen and new people are coming in all the time.

"Anyone I speak to would say (the picture from Simon Byrne) is not a true reflection."

He agreed that more needed to be done to improve community policing. I don't have a lot of experience dealing with the PSNI. You see heavily armoured cars and jeeps drive straight to the barracks, drive round the town then leave it again.

"You see little effort of actual policing on the ground."

He added: "People want to see a fair and transparent police service in Crossmaglen that does their job. It's no different here than anywhere else. Acting as if it's a military operation is not the policing operation you want to see, it's totally uncalled for."

Another resident of 40 years, who preferred not to be named, said he hadn't spoken to a police officer in 10 years.

"I can see how people could be offended by this, heavily armed policemen at Christmas in Crossmaglen," he said.

Keen to move on from the shadow of the Troubles in the area, he said: "That sort of thing keeps it alive.

"It's a nice peaceful place to live, good neighbours and I never have any trouble.

"It wouldn't be a bad idea to have more officers out engaging with people. We don't see the policemen.

"There is no presence apart from a jeep-load of them coming through the town, I haven't spoke to a policeman in 10 years.

"I would say everyone would like to have a good relationship with the law, but I can't see any point in having a photograph like that published."

Another younger resident commented: "There's no need for the guns on Christmas day, nothing really happens here.

"I think it's trying to intimidate people when it's just a quiet town.

"It's full of civilised people here and it's not like it was a few years ago, there's no need for police to be coming out with guns."

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