Rural Crime Unit does not exist: Chief Constable

The PSNI tractor, pictured at the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle in 2014.
The PSNI tractor, pictured at the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle in 2014.

The fact that the PSNI has no Rural Crime Unit was among the issues to arise during a question-and-answer session involving the Province’s top police officer last night.

Chief Constable George Hamilton posted responses to dozens of questions from members of the public between 7.30pm and 8.30pm via the web service Twitter.

Chief Constable George Hamilton

Chief Constable George Hamilton

He had invited internet users to submit their questions in the run-up to Wednesday night.

One of those who had asked a question was UUP MLA Robin Swann.

He wrote: “How many officers are currently in the #PSNI Rural Crime Unit?”

The chief constable responded: “There is no rural crime unit but it remains a priority in relevant areas and is tackled on a daily basis.”

Mr Swann – MLA for North Antrim, and a member of Stormont’s agriculture committee – then asked: “When was it disbanded – there was a lot of fanfare when it was established?”

No reply was posted to this follow-up query.

In May 2013, Farming Life reported that then-justice minister David Ford was creating a “Rural Crime Unit” within the PSNI, “jointly funded by the Department of Justice and NFU Mutual”.

It was subsequently mentioned a number of times in the Assembly.

Among the most recent mentions was in September 2015, when Mr Ford was asked about the composition of the unit.

Speaking about it in the past tense, Mr Ford replied that the unit had been “supported by a dedicated data analyst”, whose contract had stopped at the end of 2014.

It does not seem clear from Mr Ford’s answer whether or not the entire unit had been disbanded at that time.

Bonfires and paramilitary trappings were also among the subjects raised in the question-and-answer session.

One man posted a picture of a paramilitary sign in the Ballycraigy area of Antrim, bearing an image of a masked gunman and the emblems of the UDA and UFF – both illegal groups.

The man asked: “Should murals & signs supporting proscribed terrorist groups like this be removed?”

The chief constable replied: “Deeply distasteful but not always illegal – depends on the circumstances.”

The questioner then added: “Thanks for reply, but I don’t get how advertising support for an illegal group who’ve used violence isn’t against the law.”

One of Twitter’s limitations is that each individual message cannot be more than 140 characters long – about the length of this paragraph.

This drawback was acknowledged in the response to another web-user, who asked the PSNI chief: “Why allow the perception to continue that some bonfires and some posters can be removed but others can’t?”

The reply came: “Might be useful to speak to your local police as Twitter doesn’t facilitate fulsome response on this issue.”

As well as weighty issues, a number of people also posed light-hearted queries too.

Asked if he could recall his first arrest, he said: “Yes, I was based in Enniskillen and it was an arrest for Disorderly Behaviour – January 1986.”

Another asked, apparently in reference to the musician of the same name: “Do you have any regrets leaving country and western singing?”

Mr Hamilton replied: “Who says I’ve left?”