Belfast Telegraph

Higgins' claim about no PSNI escort for visit has to be clarified, says MLA

By Victoria Leonard

The Irish President should "apologise for the embarrassment caused to the PSNI" if his claim it couldn't provide him with an escort from the border to Belfast turns out to be wrong, an MLA has said.

North Down Assemblyman and former RUC reservist Alan Chambers spoke out after Michael D Higgins said that "for security reasons I couldn't be picked up at the border" during a visit in May, and he had to fly to Belfast in the government Learjet instead. A car drove from Dublin to pick President Higgins up at the airport.

Mr Higgins is running for re-election as the Republic's Head of State. Voting takes place on Friday.

In May Mr Higgins gave a speech at Queen's University on the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement around the concepts of remembering, forgiving, forgetting, and imagining.

In response to Mr Higgins' comments about his travel arrangements during a televised presidential debate on Wednesday evening, PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Alan Todd said: "It is a long-established policy of the PSNI not to comment on the security arrangements made for individuals.

"The PSNI routinely work with visiting Heads of State and other key figures visiting Northern Ireland and make full provisions for their safety in line with their requirements. We have nothing further to add at this time."

Mr Chambers, who was in the RUC for 15 years, said Mr Higgins' comments "very disappointing" and queried why he had not raised concerns at the time.

"If the PSNI couldn't provide a dignitary coming over the border with protection that's disappointing, and if for some reason the President is clutching at straws to justify the use of the plane, then that's very disappointing, as he would be using the PSNI as a scapegoat," he said.

"I think that, on reflection, he might have wanted to handle it differently. I think Alan Todd made a fairly robust rebuttal.

"Using a plane seems a bit extravagant, but we don't know the circumstances."

However, Mr Chambers added that he was "not sure if it is fair to blame Higgins".

"If there has been a breakdown in communication it may not be anything to do directly with the President. You wouldn't expect him to come with ashes and sackcloth to PSNI headquarters," he said.

"My personal feeling is it has just been a gaffe made behind the scenes.

"I can understand the embarrassment it has caused to the police and it needs to be put to bed one way or another. If he is wrong he needs to apologise."

A spokesperson for the President said yesterday: "For logistical reasons, and on security advice, the President did use the government plane to travel to Belfast in May to deliver the Harri Holkeri lecture.

"The President has made many visits to Northern Ireland by car and is grateful for the support received from the security services. It would not be appropriate to further comment on the detail of security arrangements."

Belfast Telegraph

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