Belfast Telegraph

Political vacuum is being filled by dissidents, Chief Constable warns in plea to parties

PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne
Officers deal with disorder in the New Lodge earlier this month

By David Young

Northern Ireland's political deadlock is hindering societal efforts to tackle the threat posed by dissident republicans, the Chief Constable has warned.

Simon Byrne expressed concern about a lack of political direction to improve conditions in deprived areas where dissidents are recruiting vulnerable young people.

Mr Byrne said educational underachievement and limited employment opportunities were shown to be contributory factors in fuelling extremism.

His warning came as he pinned the blame for this week's murder bid against police and Army in Co Fermanagh on the Continuity IRA.

Police officers and Army bomb disposal experts escaped injury when a device detonated as they attended a security alert at Wattle Bridge near the border on Monday morning.

In the wake of the explosion PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin pointed to the power-sharing crisis at Stormont as he stressed the need for societal improvements in the region.

Mr Byrne echoed those remarks yesterday as he visited a PSNI call centre in east Belfast.

He said: "We need the Executive back in place so that policy can be implemented to improve the opportunity and living conditions of particularly young people who may become disaffected and be recruited in a vulnerable state by dissident republicans." Stormont has been without a devolved Government since January 2017.

Mr Byrne said: "I have nowhere to go, frankly, in terms of where do I get support to deal with some of the more medium-term policing issues, how do I draw commitment support from health, from some of the district councils, for example?

"Because there is a whole wealth of evidence that actually turning around deprived and isolated communities to make their life opportunities better, their prosperity improved, the whole environment more vibrant, is actually not a policing issue. We can sometimes be a catalyst, we can create the space for other agencies and organisations to do their job, but we need that support unequivocally."

Mr Byrne backed the stance taken by his deputy.

"At the end of the day Steve has the benefit of being here man and boy, years of experience of differing policing contexts right across the country," he said. "I am fresh eyes, two months into the job, but where we join up is that same conclusion that the political vacuum is not helping us.

"We are not here to be political, my job is to lead the operational response of the PSNI, but at the end of the day we need political support to do our job as well as we can."

Mr Byrne said the re-emergence of the Continuity IRA after a period of relative inactivity was a "worry". Mr Byrne said he would describe the recent spate of murder bids by dissidents as a "spike".

The senior officer said it was too simplistic to blame the increase in activity on Brexit.

"There's no clear evidence yet that Brexit is motivating people to increase their confidence to change the tempo of attacks against the police," he said.

Mr Byrne said a no-deal Brexit could see the PSNI calling in support from other forces in the UK to help manage the border.

He revealed that a mutual aid request is one option in the force's Brexit scenario planning as he warned that policing 300 border crossings is "just not practical".

Mr Byrne stressed he had not "pressed that button yet" in requesting outside support, and said the PSNI's primary aim would be to police the fallout from a no-deal exit, with its own officers working in co-operation with the Garda south of the border.

He outlined details of the PSNI's Brexit preparations as he urged the Government to bolster his resources by recruiting a wave of new officers.

The PSNI has around 6,750 officers.

The Government has committed to funding an extra 300 to deal with Brexit, but Mr Byrne wants more than double that number, to bring the total to 7,500 - an operating level envisaged for the PSNI when it replaced the RUC in 2001.

He was speaking on the same day that Garda Commissioner Drew Harris announced major reforms to the Republic's police force, which will see around 1,800 extra gardai deployed to front line services over the next two years. Around 800 additional officers and staff would be recruited, while some 1,000 current gardai would be redeployed by 2021.

Mr Byrne questioned why Boris Johnson's commitment to recruit 20,000 extra officers in England and Wales had not been extended to Northern Ireland.

"If we go back to the past we talked about a number of 7,500 officers being what Patten (Lord Patten, who oversaw policing reforms) saw as the number of officers that I need to police the streets of Northern Ireland and that's my plea to politicians," he said.

"At the end of the day the Prime Minister made a commitment in England and Wales to increase the headcount of police officers by 20,000 - when will we see our share here?

"Brexit feeds into this. We have had a support, which we are grateful for, to increase nearly 300 more officers to deal with some of the most immediate problems with Brexit but, at the end of the day, we can only speculate how this is going to play out.

"In the medium term, if I am going to provide a policing service which the public in Northern Ireland have quite clearly said needs to be about more visibility and more people on the ground, I frankly need more officers to do that and my plea is to have our share of what is happening in England and Wales."

Belfast Telegraph


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