Garrison attack and policing

Pete has covered the latest terrorist attacks below. Thankfully they seem to have been completely unsuccessful. However, the attempt to murder a police officer who lived in Garrison was particularly sinister. At the start of the troubles the IRA often targeted police officers living in nationalist areas and Garrison is a very predominantly nationalist village. In addition the IRA were often reported to preferentially attempt to murder Catholic police officers in order to drive their co-religionists out of the RUC which they then denounced for not having enough Catholics. The threats to police officers in places like Fermanagh resulted in them living only in certain safer areas, largely around Enniskillen, Ballinamard, Lisbellaw, Kesh and the like.

The problems of policing in areas such as Fermanagh have been frequently documented with officers being unable to respond to crimes in certain areas for fear of attack: it is widely believed in Fermanagh that the PSNI will not venture south of Lisnaskea at night. In addition the lack of police on the ground and very limited number of police stations makes community as well as more anti terrorist related policing very limited.

Much of the blame for these problems has been laid at the door of the Patten proposals on policing. Patten’s proposals especially the Policing with the Community (pages 111-112) were predicated on a peaceful society as indeed the next section of the report Policing in a Peaceful Society (112-113) states. The problem is that in a peaceful society people very rarely set out with the intent to murder police officers as their sole criminal enterprise at that time. Policing is a dangerous job as we saw when PC Bill Barker died in the floods in England. In addition police officers are sometimes murdered by criminals trying to escape arrest. However, it is not a typical mark of a peaceful society for a gang of criminals to attempt to murder police officers on or off duty for the simple reason that they are police officers: even less so when these criminals have access to assault rifles, explosives and the like. As such the Patten proposals for policing in a peaceful society are extremely flawed.

That the proposals are, however, being persisted with is of course a political decision. Matt Baggott’s decision to scrap the police reserve (officers frequently used in and experienced at a security role) was described as “incomprehensible.” That is, however, untrue: his decision was entirely comprehensible in the context of a police chief constable who is a champion of community policing and is following a political agenda to “normalise” policing. Normalising policing is extremely laudable; however, as we are being shown in substantial parts of Fermanagh and South Armagh amongst other places, traditional community policing is going to be extremely difficult if not impossible and as such for Baggott to persist with his professed aims looks completely naïve. As the DUP note here the idea of the lumbering van which is Fermanagh’s mobile police station visiting Beleek or Belcoo to provide community policing would be almost laughable were it not so serious and the idea of it in Rosslea would be more akin to Apocalypse Now than reality.

Some may call for the reintroduction of the army. The counter is of course that that is exactly what the dissidents want. However, if groups of terrorists armed with assault rifles and rocket launchers take over village cross roads or indeed attack police officers in their homes it is unclear which organisation is supposed to deal with them if not the army. The police can do so though it is far from ideal especially if one also wants them to be community police officers. If the PSNI are to stop heavily armed terrorists they will need to be more numerous in the affected areas; will all need to have suitable weapons. For those people to be primarily community police officers then becomes very difficult: G3 assault rifles and Heckler and Koch sub-machine-guns are probably not particularly conducive to Patten or Baggott’s ideals of community policing.

As I mentioned above Baggott’s intensely political decision to scrap the PSNI reserve may come back to haunt him: whatever the demerits of keeping the reserve surely even republicans would rather have them than the British Army; yet if normalisation renders the PSNI incapable of performing as an effective anti terrorist force then the army will be the only alternative. As such Baggott’s decisions may in actual fact help bring about the reintroduction of soldiers on the streets.

The DUP seem to have gone quiet on Donaldson’s threat not to accept the devolution of policing and justice if the reserve is scrapped. That may well have been because the DUP do not want to interfere in operational policing decisions. However, if a police chief constable makes a decision which is quite clearly political and will inevitably result in a loss of community confidence (as Baggott’s decision will in Fermanagh as well as elsewhere) then it is behoovent upon politicians to state this and act accordingly. If Baggott wishes to place the community and his own officers in unnecessary peril in Fermanagh and elsewhere then the DUP should state that they will not accept the devolution of policing and justice and indeed that their confidence in the new chief constable is being sorely tested.

I am indebted to serving and former RUC and PSNI officers for technical advice regarding this blog.