Battling dissident republican terrorists and policing potentially explosive marches while also fighting crime, the PSNI needs more officers says CHRIS RYDER.
The PSNI must urgently recruit an additional 1,000 officers to provide an independent surge capacity so that it can cope effectively with major incidents or prolonged public disorder without mutual aid from mainland police services or redeploying the Army.
Over the Twelfth of July period this year, with severe disorder at only one location, Ardoyne, the thin green line was so taut that many officers were on duty continuously for very long periods.
If the difficult parading situation at Crumlin, or any other area, had triggered simultaneous violence, the police over-stretch would have been at breaking point creating the most serious policing crisis since August 1969, when the Army had to be deployed to help maintain law and order.
Forcing police officers to remain on duty for such long periods is entirely unacceptable. Tired officers make mistakes or can even over-react, making bad situations worse.
Having to concentrate large numbers of officers for duty in a concentrated time period has a serious knock-on effect on routine policing elsewhere as well as leaving ordinary communities without adequate police cover.
Senior police officers are all too aware of just how thinly stretched the PSNI green lines are and have been working on contingency plans to provide for all too plausible scenarios in which sustained disorder in more than one location could be triggered by a contentious parade or other events.
The 1999 Patten report foresaw that police resources could easily be overwhelmed by such unforeseen events and it recommended that at least one battalion of the Army’s remaining garrison in Northern Ireland should be fully trained in public order tactics to assist the police in an emergency.
However, that recommendation has now been overtaken by other considerations. The Army itself is already at breaking point from reduced force levels and its other standing human-power commitments, notably Afghanistan.
In any case nobody wants to see soldiers on our streets again, however briefly, given the adverse political signals that would send.
So local commanders have been negotiating with their counterparts in Britain to include the PSNI in the longstanding mutual aid arrangements whereby individual forces can call for help to meet major operational commitments.
The aim would be to bring in cadres of mainland police to backfill while PSNI officers were deployed in the front line combating public disorder or other major incidents.
To this end the PSNI have recently deployed some units to policing operations in Britain. A public order team helped Welsh police with a rugby international. At the same time, several British forces have sent public order units for training with PSNI specialists on the ranges at Ballykinler and in Antrim where there are purpose-built public order training facilities. But no non-PSNI officers have been operationally deployed.
The idea is not a new one. In 1969, as the RUC was being overwhelmed by the escalating public disorder and terrorism, the British Government of the day tried to put together a team of volunteer unarmed ‘bobbies’ to go to Northern Ireland to restore civil policing.
The initiative foundered as quickly as it had been conceived principally because of determined opposition from the Police Federation, whose rank and file officers would have been involved.
Over the years that opposition has hardened and the Federation still remains strongly opposed to participating in crisis policing here.
They point out that the vast majority of British police officers are routinely unarmed, unlike their PSNI colleagues. They are also untrained to cope with the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland where officers have to be constantly on guard against terrorist attacks designed to kill or maim them.
There are also serious concerns about the welfare, legal standing and rights of British officers in terms of accommodation, pay and compensation provisions if any suffered injury or death.
As host forces usually pay the costs arising from mutual aid, the financial implications of such contingency planning have been a complicating factor.
Consequently these negotiations between police chiefs have dragged on for several years now with no workable logistical, financial or operational agreement in immediate prospect.
Against this background, the most practical solution is for the PSNI to be allowed to recruit and train 1,000 additional officers. This would enable the PSNI to deal independently with any conceivable crisis or emergency that might evolve while significantly increasing the number of officers available for routine policing.
At a time of national austerity, when it is trying to cut costs all round, this proposal will not be welcomed by the Government which ultimately provides the funds for policing here. And making it at this particular point when the Treasury is imposing stringent cuts on the entire police service makes it even more toxic.
However, the cost of such an initiative must be offset against the unlimited consequences of serious disorder. There remains a significant terrorist threat and there are still too many contentious and potentially difficult parades. Even a couple of days rioting runs up a significant bill for the public purse not to include the hidden cost of the flight of investment and the reluctance to create jobs and economic benefits here.
Expanding the police would be like taking out an insurance policy against these malign but possible scenarios and would undoubtedly prove less costly in the end. It would also meet the consistent public demand for more visible and effective policing.
The PSNI has made dramatic progress in fulfilling the Patten objectives but much remains to be achieved. There are still many hotspots and flashpoints to be calmed and close contact community policing is not as effectively established everywhere as it should be. More officers would help and be as solid an investment in a peaceful and prosperous future in our turbulent society as even the most beneficial economic initiative that could be conceived.
For these reasons, the proposition to recruit 1,000 additional police officers deserves the most rigorous evaluation.
Chris Ryder is a Belfast-based retired journalist who wrote for The Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph, specialising in security issues.