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PSNI warned not to risk officer safety in 'Bandit Country'

Joint policing across Northern Ireland’s border must be considered to improve community relations, a PSNI report has advised. But NI Fed has called it “a fait accompli”.

Officer safety must be prioritised if plans to change policing on Northern Ireland’s border go ahead, Federation leaders have warned.

Proposals to move to community policing in Crossmaglen and even joint work with the Irish Police will fail if officer safety issues are ignored, Chiefs were told in response to an official report.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland published a 172-page review which concluded policing in South Armagh lacks “credibility” and called for the closure of the historic Crossmaglen police station.

It reveals a weary community that wants to move on from decades of violence and expects PSNI to move to a less militaristic approach.

The review was started after Chief Constable Simon Byrne shared a photo of himself with armed officers outside the station on Christmas Day in 2019. It provoked an angry response from residents and PSNI decided to ask why.

On resident told researchers: “The heavily armed officers posing with the Chief Constable is reflective of the militaristic style of policing that the community has had to endure in recent years... We need a new chapter for policing in South Armagh.

“We need an end to fortified police stations, heavily armed officers and poor response levels. We need a police service that serves the interests of this community in an efficient, effective and respectful manner.”

The report revealed major issues are anti-social behaviour, burglary and drug offences. But there is a high level of under-reporting as residents do not believe the force will take action.

Among the 50 recommendations were for PSNI to formalise joint work with Garda colleagues to enable “hot pursuit between policing jurisdictions”.

More direct impact ideas include creating an additional Chief Inspector post, only using liveried police vehicles, using a performance framework and redeveloping Newry police station.

Other proposals include using Gaelic messages and signs and exploring the relocation of memorials to murdered police officers.

Back story

It’s a sensitive border area: 68% of people were brought up as Catholic and 62% identify as Irish. The constituency is represented by a Sinn Fein MP and people regularly cross the border for work, education and social activity.

In parts of the area where there is a poor mobile phone reception, most use networks based in the Irish Republic. Four of Northern Ireland’s most deprived areas are close to the station.

Inevitably during The Troubles, Crossmaglen was a target for terrorist attacks: 30 police officers were killed during terrorist incidents in the area between 1970 and 1993. The death toll also includes 123 British soldiers, 75 members of the public and 10 members of the Provisional IRA.

It became the most militarised part of the province – it has since been known as ‘bandit country’ and is still viewed as a Republican stronghold.

The last fortification was removed in 2007 but locals fear post-Brexit border controls could reignite the Troubles.

Modern era

Currently, one Sergeant and 10 Constables work from Crossmaglen Police Station on a residential shift pattern, accessing the station remotely using police vehicles from Ardmore, Newry.

This involves officers living in the station on rotation over a three or four day period. This arrangement has its roots in the past and would have been common practice in border policing, aimed at minimising frequency and predictability of transit.

The report revealed the fortress mentality includes access by other officers: “[It] is permanently managed as an unofficial restricted patrolling area with officers outside the area not permitted to enter, unless under escort by local resources or in exceptional circumstances.

“The perceived danger of the area and threats to officer safety are widely reinforced. This has had a significant impact on the mind-set of officers working in this environment and on wider organisational perspectives of policing in South Armagh,” it said.

“It may also explain why policing practice in South Armagh has fallen out of step with organisational developments in recent years.”

One officer told the review that senior officers don’t understand the area and he did not like the approach to policing.

The Chief himself said the station looked like a relic from the Cold War and work had not evolved.

“I visited twice from memory in 2019, and I was quite taken aback at deep-seated concrete walls, high fences and cameras,” he said. “It looked like a relic from the Cold War, never mind the Troubles.

Mr Byrne said the findings make for “challenging” reading.

“They reflect that we have not made the progress in South Armagh that we have in other areas and that our approach to policing does not currently reflect the needs and priorities of the local community,” he said.

But the report’s publication was not universally welcomed.

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland (PFNI) said it had not been consulted – describing its publication as “a fait accompli” - and warned officer safety had to be prioritised over politics in any reforms.

Building a modern station rather than closure should also be considered.

It also warned Police memorials to murdered officers being moved would have to be done in consultation with families.

Fed Chair Mark Linsay said: “There are practical measures set out in this report where the emphasis is rightly placed on community policing.

“Policing cannot remain static and, to a large extent, this report acknowledges the considerable positive changes that have taken place in South Armagh, which have been delivered as a result of the commitment and professionalism of our colleagues working in that area.”

But he warned: “That said, our officers still face considerable challenges, more now from organised crime gangs than paramilitaries. Officers policing on behalf of the entire South Armagh community cannot be put at risk.

“They need proper protection to offset any threat that exists and cannot be exposed to unacceptable dangers because it is expedient for political reasons.”

The force’s chief hoped some good will now come out of what started as a row.

Asked if he regretted the tweet that led to the report, Mr Byrne told the PA news agency: “Sometimes I do regret it because it caused a controversy that is always unwelcome, but equally I now find myself asking had I not done it, would we be stood here today?

"Because perhaps some of the concerns and issues that hadn’t been seen because of poor leadership and group-think frankly might not have been self-evident until it was too late.”

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