Stormont vacuum ‘a problem’ in fight against dissidents, police chief warns

PSNI at the scene of a bomb attack
PSNI at the scene of a bomb attack
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Stormont’s political vacuum is hindering societal efforts to tackle the threat posed by dissident republicans, Northern Ireland’s police chief has warned.

Simon Byrne expressed concern about a lack of political direction to improve conditions in deprived areas where dissidents are recruiting vulnerable young people.

Mr Byrne said educational underachievement and limited employment opportunities were shown to be contributory factors in fuelling extremism.

The chief constable’s warning came as he pinned the blame for this week’s murder bid against police and Army in Co Fermanagh on the dissident group the Continuity IRA.

Police officers and Army bomb disposal experts escaped injury when a device detonated as they attended the scene of a security alert at Wattle Bridge near the Irish border on Monday morning.

In the wake of the explosion, PSNI deputy chief constable Stephen Martin pointed to the power-sharing crisis at Stormont as he stressed the need for societal improvements in the region.

Mr Byrne echoed those remarks on Thursday as he visited a PSNI call centre in east Belfast.

“I think the absence of Government is a problem and we need that leadership,” he told the PA news agency.

“We need the Executive back in place so that policy can be implemented to improve the opportunity and living conditions of particularly young people who may become disaffected and be recruited in a vulnerable state by dissident republicans.”

Stormont has been without a devolved Government for over two-and-a-half years due a bitter row between erstwhile coalition partners, the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Mr Byrne said: “I have nowhere to go, frankly, in terms of where do I get support to deal with some of the more medium-term policing issues, how do I draw commitment support from health, from some of the district councils, for example?

“Because there is a whole wealth of evidence that actually turning around deprived and isolated communities to make their life opportunities better, their prosperity improved, the whole environment more vibrant, is actually not a policing issue.

“We can sometimes be a catalyst, we can create the space for other agencies and organisations to do their job, but we need that support unequivocally.”

Mr Byrne backed the stance taken by his deputy.

“At the end of the day, Steve has the benefit of being here man and boy, years of experience of differing policing contexts right across the country,” he said.

“I am fresh eyes, two months into the job, but where we join up is that same conclusion that the political vacuum is not helping us.

“We are not here to be political, my job is to lead the operational response of the PSNI, but at the end of the day we need political support to do our job as well as we can.”

Mr Byrne said the re-emergence of the Continuity IRA after a period of relative inactivity was a “worry”.

“I think all the indications are is that was an attack planned and carried out by that group,” he said.

“That is a clear worry as they have returned to the terrorist nature of trying to kill or seriously injure one of my officers.

“Clearly there is little doubt this was carefully planned attack to lure individual officers into a very isolated place, put them at risk and detonate a device that was clearly intended to either kill or seriously injure somebody and I am just grateful that, despite the fact the device went off, we are not now dealing with the funeral of one of my officers.”

Mr Byrne said he would describe the recent spate of murder bids by dissidents as a “spike”.

“A spike is good way of describing it because we have had six attacks on my officers this year,” he said.

“That is different to the picture the year before.

“I think it would be knee-jerk to describe it as an ‘upsurge’ in a campaign but clearly it’s something that I am watching closely both with my own colleagues but also with MI5 and the Secretary of State (Julian Smith) to see what the motivations behind this are and to make sure we continue our efforts to keep one step ahead of the terrorists.”

The senior officer said it was too simplistic to blame the increase in activity on Brexit.

“There’s no clear evidence yet that Brexit is motivating people to increase their confidence to change the tempo of attacks against the police,” he said.

“Clearly we will have to see how events work out over the next few weeks - is that something that people come out and actually say and actually attribute to the change of mood and attitude?

“I think at end of the day it’s a well-rehearsed story that there’s still a small number of people - and it is small - that are clearly intent on trying to carry out attacks on my officers, to repeat the awful evil of the past rather than rely on politicians and dialogue to sort out some of the issues in our society.”