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Why Ford’s priority must be terrorists, not prisons

It hasn't taken long for David Ford to be pressed on the reality of his own strategic ministerial challenge.

Just days into his high-profile job, he has been presented with a stark reminder of the gravity of the current terrorist threat through the Police Federation's grim assessment of the implications to its members patrolling the streets.

If anyone was in any doubt about the inability of the Police Service of Northern Ireland to successfully combat the dissidents, then Terry Spence's letter to Mr Ford and his fellow Executive ministers should dispel any uncertainty.

By questioning whether Chief Constable Matt Baggott really has sufficient resources to fend off the dissidents and warning that "we will gradually sleepwalk into a renewal of a full-blown terrorist campaign", Spence couldn't have made it much clearer that the men and women on the ground whom he represents have lost confidence in their ability to cope.

In truth, we have been sleepwalking to this nightmare for the last five years through the continual diminishing of police resources and, if the powers-that-be in policing and Government haven't noticed the brewing crisis, then we are in an even more desperate situation than we appreciate.

Baggott is the hapless successor parachuted in to take up a community policing brief as the scales tipped indisputably in the other direction towards a priority of combating terrorism.

In his mission statement, David Ford places the "safety of Northern Ireland's citizens" at the "heart of the local justice system". Now Terry Spence is effectively saying: "prove it".

Mr Ford's first major initiative though, as stated in that statement, is to review the conditions of detention, management and oversight of all prisons - Terry Spence is highlighting a much more pressing priority.

Commendable and humanitarian as caring for prisoners might be, against the backdrop of first the Chief Constable and now Terry Spence warning that the threat posed by dissident republicans is at its most severe since the Omagh bombing, prisons are hardly the biggest concern of the community.

What is of the utmost concern is the credibility of the professional Police Service that serves it and the tactical judgment of its commanders.

The PSNI turning up 'late' for the Newtownhamilton attack has given the dissident republicans a psychological boost, fostering the perception that there are new 'no go' areas for the PSNI along the border.

Maybe Ford chose not to labour the expanding threat from the dissident republican terror groups lest he give the wrong emphasis.

But many law-abiding people may conclude from his statement that his personal concern for prisoners is already too high on his priority list. Is the Prisoners Ombudsman not charged with that responsibility?

The plight of 24 police officers and their families having to vacate their homes already this year because of the terrorist threat arguably figures much more prominently in public concerns.

How long will it be before another PSNI officer is murdered like Stephen Carroll, or crippled like Peadar Heffron, is the more pressing question in the public mind.

If he does wish to major on reform, then Mr Ford could dwell fruitfully on the overhaul of our sometimes failing criminal justice system and the sentencing of vicious criminals for longer periods.

Some of those failings have been brought to his attention in recent months, including police unwillingness to investigate and shortcomings in the provision of legal services, including a lack of confidence in the Public Prosecution Service.

The grim reality is that, if Terry Spence's warning is not heeded, then we will have a casualty-littered 'shared future' with all the further grief, angst and turmoil that will bring.