7 February 2018, The Guardian
Northern Ireland’s top police officer has warned that border posts and security installations created as a result of a “hard Brexit” would be seen as “fair game” for attack by violent dissident republicans.
The chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said he feared that a fortified frontier that would have to be policed around the clock would put his officers’ lives in greater danger from anti-peace process paramilitaries.
George Hamilton also expressed concern that the British government and the EU had not yet come up with a post-Brexit alternative to the European arrest warrant (EAW), which he said was a vital tool in the fight against terrorism and crime on the island of Ireland.
He described as “severe” the violent threat from the New IRA and other terrorist groups opposed to the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.
In an interview with the Guardian, the officer , who has one of the most challenging policing jobs in Europe, said security policy in Ireland needed “something cleverer than a hard border”.
“Our assessment is that they would be a target because it would be representative of the state and in their minds fair game for attack. I would assume that that assessment is shared by senior politicians and officials who are negotiating Brexit.
“While I am chief constable I do not want to enter the political debate over Brexit but I still think it’s fair to comment on some of its implications and scenarios. And a hard border from a policing perspective would not be a good outcome because it would a create a focus and a target.”
He said fixed frontier customs and security posts would expose PSNI officers to greater danger than they already face from anti-peace process republican paramilitaries.
“Anything that makes the police presence predictable in places where terrorists are active of course raises the threat and increases the harm to my officers. We deal with risk every day and we are good at it but unfortunately the terrorists only have to be lucky once and get a result with catastrophic consequences. I think it would be a poor use of police resources if we are going to have to protect physical infrastructures at the border.”
Hamilton said hard border installations could also have a negative political impact in both Northern Ireland and the Republic.
“If you put up significant physical infrastructure at a border which is the subject of contention politically your are re-emphasising the context and the causes of the conflict. So that creates tensions and challenges and questions around people’s identity, which in some ways the Good Friday agreement helped to deal with,” he said.
“There is a small group of determined dissident republicans who would see that physical apparatus if it’s on the northern side of the border as a representation of the UK state.”
The chief constable said he had been asking for 18 months that both the British government and the EU offer up an alternative to the European arrest warrant.
Hamilton said he feared the PSNI may no longer be able to deploy the EAW after the UK leaves the EU. “The clock is ticking,” he said, in terms of the UK and the EU drafting legislation to replace the EAW.
Over the last five years the PSNI said it has used the EAW to extradite 352 criminal suspects to other EU countries, including the Irish Republic, while 54 have been sent back to Northern Ireland.
“In the middle of all the higher politics about the EU exit the European arrest warrant has been overlooked. You would think at one level it is in everybody’s interest including the remaining EU countries and even the most ardent Brexiteers that we can keep each other’s countries safe, that we can exchange intelligence and that we have mechanisms to bring people to justice.
Asked if his force’s strength of 6,700 officers could properly police the 300-mile Irish border, Hamilton said that unless there were extra numbers recruited resources would have to taken away from other areas of policing.
“There would be an increased demand due to a hard border and a pull of resources towards that which means either an uplift in police funding or else we would have to have reduced levels of service in other areas.”
He welcomed the fact that all sides in the Brexit debate in Belfast, Dublin, London and Brussels agreed that a hard border should be avoided after the UK leaves the EU.
While welcoming a decision by one of the dissident republican groups – Óglaigh na hÉireann – to declare a ceasefire, Hamilton said the threat from hardline factions still engaged in violence, such as the New IRA, was severe. He pointed out that last year there were five serious attempts by dissident republicans to kill his officers, including a gun attack in north Belfast that left two policemen wounded.
Hamilton said that in relation to counter-terrorist operations in 2017, the PSNI carried out 148 searches and made 37 arrests, resulting in 26 people being charged or reported to the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland.
The chief constable said the proportion of jailed dissident republicans compared with the overall membership of their organisations was “very high.” He said a number of “senior characters” inside the New IRA and Continuity IRA were facing prosecution in the near future.
On Ulster loyalist paramilitaries, he said there was a clear split between those “progressive” politically minded paramilitaries who had “bought into the dream of the peace process” and those using the names of the UVF and UDA as a “protective cloak” to engage in drug dealing, loan sharking and prostitution.
There were 10 to 12 foreign criminal gangs operating in Northern Ireland, some of them working in collusion with criminal loyalist factions, he said.
“The irony here is that there are loyalist groups working with eastern European gangsters in the drugs trade, in prostitution and extortion. Yet these same loyalist groups are the ones behind burning out and intimidating people from places like Lithuania and Romania in areas they perceive as their own,” Hamilton said.
The chief constable also said he was worried about the rise of so-called “paedophile hunters” who are using social media to track down those they accuse of child abuse or possessing child pornography. The Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland is researching about 100 cases that “paedophile hunters” have reported in terms of alleged child abusers.
He referred to a recent incident in Ballymena, County Antrim, which in his view underlined the dangers of what he called “vigilanteism”. A man was driven from his home by a group of “paedophile hunters” in the town and 24 hours later his home was set on fire.