Hard Brexit ‘could be trigger’ for recruits to North paramilitary groups

PSNI chief constable says Border checkpoints would be targets for dissident republicans

A hard Brexit could become a "trigger" for people to join dissident republican or loyalist paramilitary groups, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has warned.

Simon Byrne also said that anything that resembled checkpoints on the Border would be a target for dissident republicans.

The Chief Constable was speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme in what were a number of radio interviews on Thursday. He also spoke to RTÉ radio's Today with Miriam O'Callaghan show and BBC Radio Ulster.

“We couldn’t police the border 20 years ago with military support and I can’t see how we can do it now particularly with a reduced head count of officers,” he told RTÉ.


Among the concerns raised by the Chief Constable was the continued uncertainty of Brexit which, coupled with the “political vacuum” caused by the continued lack of a devolved government in the North, could create a “breeding ground” for dissident hatred towards the police.

"It creates confidence [among dissident republicans] and a desire to do more harm," Mr Byrne said.

In this context, he said, the police had become the “shock absorbers” for failures elsewhere.

During the summer, Mr Byrne said, Northern Ireland had been "on the precipice" of "facing serious disorder, particularly in parts of Belfast around the policing of bonfires".

“The political vacuum we’re in at the moment means effectively we have become the shock absorbers for failures elsewhere in terms of the ability of other agencies to do their job because they’re not getting direction because of the lack of an Executive,” he told the BBC.

“We keep picking up the tab,” he said to RTÉ, “and in some cases we can’t do right for doing wrong.”

He called for political leadership “so that I’ve got somewhere to go to deal with some of the more long-term issues about direction and resourcing and I can have the space to do the operational policing that people want to see.”

On Monday a bomb which exploded at Wattle Bridge, Co Fermanagh, near the Border with Co Cavan, was an attempt to kill police officers and members of a British army bomb-disposal team who had been enticed into the area with a hoax device.

The PSNI said on Thursday the Continuity IRA was responsible.

Mr Byrne said that there had been six attacks on police officers so far this year. “Clearly the events of Monday were really disturbing and worrying in that there was a clear attempt to lure my officers and indeed army specialists into a very remote and inaccessible part of the Border area.”

He said that a “small number” of dissident republicans were intent on causing harm to police, but stressed that while six attacks was “a big increase” compared to last year, it was not comparable to the situation of a decade ago.

‘Not practical’

Using technology or checkpoints in the Border area was “simply not practical”, he said, and he did not see how some of the suggestions could work in “that sort of rural environment”.

“What sort of technology – some form of camera possibly, be it CCTV or a number-plate reader, is that going to survive in that sort of environment? We’ve seen in the past where people have been eager, as soon as a camera has gone up, to chop it down again,” the Chief Constable said.

“There are over 300 crossings that we’d have to police on a daily basis to make that effective. We have less than 7,000 officers here these days, and we simply don’t have enough people, even with a recent budget uplift, to cope with some of the Brexit challenges to actually police that.”

He stressed the geographical challenges of policing an area where, at times, it is unclear where the Border lies.

“Who takes jurisdiction in some of those imprecise locations, and indeed in some of the other incidents that we deal with, a border might go through the middle of a farmer’s field. Realistically it is very difficult.”

‘Second worry’

The Chief Constable added that the “second worry” was that “the minute we go into that area in a way that looks like checkpoints or supporting other agencies to staff checkpoints, we become a target for those dissident republicans.

“We’ve got to be really careful,” he said. “If we get this wrong, we could drift back to almost a paramilitary style of policing that nobody wants to see.

“I think the worry is that any change in our posture and stance to anything that looks like checkpoints, anything that’s quasi-military or that goes about affecting the day-to-day tempo of life could present us with problems that in slow time will add more motivation to dissident republicans intent on causing us harm,” he said.

The Chief Constable told BBC Radio Ulster that there was a “strong clamour” for more police officers on the streets in Northern Ireland, and he wanted to see a commitment to the recruitment of more officers.

He said he wanted to “get back to the levels [the] Patten [report] envisaged of 7,500 officers.”

The Ulster Unionist MLA, Doug Beattie, said Mr Byrne's call for additional resources was welcome and was "a fundamental change of step for the PSNI".

He said that in the context of Brexit and the continued lack of an Assembly and in the absence of direct rule, “the time is fast approaching when we need to return policing and justice functions to Westminster in order to deal with the very real problems faced by our police and the local justice system.”

Mervyn Storey, DUP MLA, said he welcomed the Chief Constable's announcement but said that he "must also call out the facts that there is a problem in nationalist and republican areas both with recruitment and with co-operation.

“This is not a time to bury our heads in the sand and ignore the problem. We will be talking to the Chief Constable about how he will address this matter,” he said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times