Police Chief Warns AGainst Brexit Border / Sunday Times
The government is failing to prepare for the potentially grave impact of Brexit on the peace and security of Northern Ireland, the province’s police chief has warned.
It had failed to respond to increasingly urgent pleas for resources to counter the heightened threat of terrorism, organised crime and public disorder resulting from the reimposition of the Irish border, George Hamilton, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) told The Sunday Times.
“What I need is information and clarity and I’m not getting that,” Hamilton said in an interview that amounted to a cry of frustration some six months before Britain leaves the European Union. He accused some Westminster politicians of believing that terrorism in his native land was finished, of failing to understand the looming dangers and of regarding the province as “peripheral”.
George Hamilton says smuggling would escalate and terrorists would try to exploit thatBRIAN LAWLESS/PA
“There’s a feeling that as regards the Troubles and the conflict, Northern Ireland is sorted and we don’t need to worry about it, when actually we’re working flat out 24/7 to keep a lid on it,” he said.
Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s loyalist and republican paramilitaries have not gone away, though most have mutated into criminal gangs that engage in smuggling, drug dealing, prostitution and extortion. In the year to July there were 139 recorded shootings, bombings, kneecappings and other assaults.
Hamilton said the terrorist threat level was “severe” even before Brexit, and that in the first nine months of this year “there have been dozens of successful [police] operations which have led to the disruption and prevention of murderous attacks by violent dissident Republicans”.
Hamilton was speaking as Northern Ireland reached a record 600 days without a devolved government due to disputes between the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein.
Hamilton said political stalemate could also destabilise Northern Ireland: “Clearly having a vacuum of political leadership . . . adds to the general instability in a volatile post-conflict society. That’s not a good thing. We would much prefer the government to be up and running, delivering on a programme and making people feel the benefit of peace and normality instead of this tension and nervousness.”
Hamilton acknowledged that Britain was still negotiating exit terms with Brussels, and emphasised that he was not taking sides in the Brexit debate but said the consequences of resurrecting the Irish border should be anticipated and planned for.
Any physical infrastructure or border officials would become targets for dissident Republicans and require police protection, he said.
“The purpose for which those checking points and border controls would be put in place would become less and less relevant because they would move away from issues of trade or movement of people to old-fashioned security on a national frontier. That was done during the period of the Troubles rather unsuccessfully, and was sadly the subject of attacks and many lives lost.”
Cross-border smuggling — already rife over fuel, alcohol and tobacco — would escalate as prices and tax rates diverged, he said.
“We can make the sensible assumption that violent dissident Republican groupings and organised criminals will seek to exploit that. It’s already tricky enough policing that high-threat border.”
Renewed focus on a border rendered invisible by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement would also stoke tensions between Northern Ireland’s two communities. “It doesn’t take too much to make people insecure in their identity and constitutional position,” said Hamilton, who recalled how a dispute over flying the Union flag above Belfast city hall led to months of street protests in 2013.
For at least a year the PSNI has pressed the British government for more resources to counter these “reasonable assumptions” about Brexit’s impact.
Specifically, it wants more than 400 extra officers, including 100 by the end of March, as well as extra vehicles and equipment. It has suspended the sale of three disused police stations along the highly porous 310-mile border.
Revenue and customs and the UK Border Force have received thousands of new officers to handle Brexit but the PSNI has yet to receive an answer to its series of increasingly detailed requests for more resources. Until last month it lacked even a designated interlocutor in Whitehall. One source described the process as “wading through treacle”.
Asked if the government understood Brexit’s potential consequences for Northern Ireland, Hamilton replied: “I’m not sure all of them do. I have a concern some may see issues to do with the Irish border as literally peripheral, not just geographically but in terms of impact.”
As an example he suggested the government might consider smuggling to be “small beer”, but said: “It’s actually the lifeblood for organised crime and terrorism and has a massive impact on local communities and legitimate small businesses and the fabric of society.”
Hamilton named no names, but as foreign secretary Boris Johnson brusquely dismissed the border issue in June, saying: “It’s so small and there are so few firms that actually use the border regularly it’s just beyond belief that we’re allowing the tail to wag the dog in this way.” Jacob Rees-Mogg, another leading Tory Brexiteer, declined to visit the border with the Brexit select committee in May, saying: “My going and wandering across a few roads isn’t going to tell me anything.”
Even Karen Bradley admitted in an interview last week that she was profoundly ignorant about the issues when she became Northern Ireland secretary in January, and did not understand that “nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa”.
Northern Ireland remains deeply divided, with 90% of housing estates still segregated, scarcely 8% of its schoolchildren attending integrated schools and almost 90 “peace walls” keeping nationalists and loyalists apart.
Its main political parties reflect and encourage that division. They fight for their own communities’ interests and scorn compromise. On Thursday Bradley announced she was cutting the £49,500 salaries of the Stormont assembly’s 90 members because they had not sat since January 2017.
Northern Ireland is being run instead by its civil service. Nearly £2bn of key infrastructure projects have been suspended. Policy initiatives have been put on hold. Public services are suffering what a top civil servant called “slow decay”. Investment has dried up. Contentious social issues, such as draconian abortion laws and ban on gay marriage, remain unaddressed.
Thousands of citizens recently attended “We deserve better” rallies in 14 towns and cities across the region. When Belfast’s Primark store burnt down 12 days ago wags suggested it should move to Stormont so that at least the parliament building had a use.