Former officer defends Byrne over ‘heavy weaponry’ Twitter picture

A photograph of the chief constable flanked by heavily armed officers in Crossmaglen “reflects the reality” of policing that area in 2019, a former senior detective has said.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 27th December 2019, 1:53 pm
Updated Friday, 27th December 2019, 2:33 pm
Chief Constable Simon Byrne (centre) along with officers from Crossmaglen PSNI
Chief Constable Simon Byrne (centre) along with officers from Crossmaglen PSNI

Alan Mains was commenting after Simon Byrne posted a Christmas Day photo on Twitter which featured two of the five pictured carrying semi-automatic rifles.

Mr Byrne’s accompanying tweet said: “On Christmas morning great to meet the team policing Crossmaglen @PSNINMDown. I take my hat off to colleagues policing such a unique part of @PoliceServiceNI. Their sense of duty & optimism is inspiring. Stay safe and thank you.”

It provoked a backlash from some nationalist representatives and was widely criticised on social media.

Simon Byrne's statement

SDLP councillor Pete Byrne said many in south Armagh were “hurt and offended” by the display of “heavy weaponry,” while Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy described the picture as “utterly unacceptable”.

However, Mr Mains said the photograph simply reflected “the reality of policing when the threat level is very high”.

Mr Mains said: “I don’t believe he set out to offend anyone. The weapons being carried by the officers are standard issue for that kind of policing environment.

“That is the reality of what police officers have to carry to protect both themselves and the people of south Armagh.

“You also have to remember that the south Armagh area is used as a cross-border corridor for organised crime gangs.”

In the mid-1980s, Mr Mains served as a staff officer to Chief Superintendent Harry Breen who was murdered – along with colleague Bob Buchanan – by the IRA during an ambush in south Armagh.

The former long-serving officer added: “When I worked in that area in the 1980s and 1990s the good people of Crossmaglen and south Armagh strived to have a more normalised policing environment but couldn’t because of the activities of the Provisional IRA and others like them.

“I will take the chief constable’s word for it that the threat level remains very high.”

Councillor Byrne said: “While many families across south Armagh were waking up, opening presents and enjoying their Christmas morning, they were hurt and offended to see a Twitter post from the PSNI chief constable, featuring officers with heavy weaponry on show.

“While we all appreciate police officers and other emergency services working on Christmas Day, questions must be asked about the nature of this post.”

Mr Murphy said: “The heavily armed officers posing with the chief constable is reflective of the militaristic style of policing that the community in south Armagh has had to endure in recent years.

“This community is no different to any other, any attempt to differentiate the style of policing has not and will not be tolerated.”

Another former senior RUC officer, Jim Gamble, believes the chief constable got it wrong.

Mr Gamble tweeted: “On patrol with officers in XMG I’d agree with him. Posing for a photograph on Christmas Day outside XMG station not so much. In fact what I think was well intentioned clearly wasn’t thought through at all. Community policing is about the community & understanding context is key.”

Following the backlash against the picture, the chief constable issued a statement, acknowledging that his Twitter post had “caused some emotion”.

However, he added: “The officers are carrying weapons and sadly this is the stark reality of the policing environment they work in, tackling the severe terrorist threat.

“This is no reflection on the local community who work daily with their local police officers to create a safe community.”