The grenade attack on the police last week created considerable concern and then faded relatively quickly. Stephen Nolan was extremely exercised for a number of days and one senior police officer suggested that the “manner in which they do business” will change as a result. The problems for police dealing with terrorists was again highlighted with the suggestion that republican dissidents were willing to shoot at the (unarmed) Gardai.
The problem for police forces dealing with terrorists is extremely complex and there are no simple answers. The old RUC was trained to a significant degree in anti terrorism policing and the PSNI, despite their community policing role have at least some of these skills. The likes of the road block in Meigh in South Armagh last year where the police were ordered not to attempt to engage the terrorists suggested difficulties for the police in dealing with terrorists.
Much of the problem is that police officers are actually civilians and are not trained to use force in the same way as soldiers. Recently the it was suggested that if a Mumbai style attack occurred in the UK the police would have to call on the SAS and that the police were being given more powerful weapons. However, as was suggested at the time police officers are trained to control violent situations and minimise risk to themselves and others. This makes them less able to thwart terrorists. The suggestion is that soldiers move forward and take ground, accepting causalities as part and parcel of the process of defeating the threat. Some SAS officers have suggested having military typed units prepared to respond to terrorists.
It is very likely that 20 years ago here in Northern Ireland a terrorist would not have cycled up to three police officers in West Belfast, thrown a hand grenade at them and cycled off. Had s/he been so foolish there is little doubt they would have shot by the soldiers accompanying the RUC. Unlike police officers, soldiers are trained for prolonged periods to respond to such incidents by firing back: the cycling terrorist would almost certainly have been shot repeatedly by the soldiers. Furthermore the terrorist, knowing this would have been unlikely to try the attack in the first place. Similarly the terrorists who set up a check point in Meigh would have been highly concerned about the prospect of being overwhelmed by much more numerous, better armed and properly trained real soldiers.
In spite of the above the prospect of the army being deployed back on the streets is unlikely to be a helpful idea; nor indeed would the increased militarisation of routine police work be anything other than a retrograde step.
The simple reality is that the dissident republicans want to bring the army back onto the streets. That does not mean that the army returning to the streets is by definition a bad idea but it does mean that if they do so then a propaganda victory will have been handed to the dissidents. Furthermore although the army or increased militarisation of the police could provide reassurance it could also increase division of the police from the more difficult rural border and working class urban republican areas in which they face the biggest threats. In addition if the police ,with or without the army, fired at and injured let alone killed an innocent bystander it would undo vast amounts of community acceptance of the police. In London it must be remembered that what seems to have been incompetence rather than malice in the death of Jean Charles de Menezes caused massive anxiety and concern from the public. A similar disaster in Belfast would be much worse for the PSNI’s reputation.
Even if the current police fired at and killed a terrorist in the very process of committing a crime there is a danger, despite the relative unpopularity of the dissidents that the dead terrorist would become a martyr. The situation with the incompetent would be murderers Sean South and Feargal O’Hanlon is analogous. They were part of an unpopular terrorist campaign; out numbered (5 to 1) and out gunned the police officers they attacked and yet when killed by the police officers they became the objects of popularity in some quarters rather than contempt which one might expect considering their cowardly, murderous and completely incompetent plan.
The republican movement has a major responsibility in the current difficulties. Although claiming to support the police they seem loathe to accept any form of security policing or intelligence gathering on terrorists, denouncing it as either a return to the old days of RUC Special Branch or else MI5 taking over policing. However, unless the police use intelligence and arrest the terrorists there is a high probability that they will continue to increase in their dangerousness and prevent the very community policing which SF claim to want. As such the mainstream republican movement, although it may not be able to bring itself to say so publicly would be very wise to support intelligence gathering.
A further and possible greater difficulty is likely to arise if (and sadly quite possibly when) the police do fire back and kill a terrorist. McGuinness might have been lauded by some for calling the murderers of Constable Carroll traitors to Ireland. However, more difficult for him and actually more significant would be to call a dead dissident terrorist, shot by the security forces (north or south) also a traitor to Ireland. That might be too hard for him or if it did might strengthen the dissident republicans.
Unionists can of course demand tougher security measures much more easily. However, they must also know that such demands are potentially problematic. Increased policing unless it 100% accurately targets only the terrorists (an impossibility) and even if it did so, will very likely alienate segments of the community who are least happy with the police.
The police must also know the problems they face. The continual mantra of community policing seems naïve when terrorists are throwing military weapons at them. However, a recourse to a more paramilitary type of policing would undoubtedly be both a backwards step and would play into the dissidents hands.
It was always known that in the process of bringing most of the paramilitary organisations into the tent that some would be left outside and have to be dealt with by a policing response. However, with neither the loyalist nor the republican terrorists does there seem to have been a coherent plan as to when it would be decided that this policing response be activated. Nor it seems was there a plan for the aggressiveness of this response nor how it would be put into practice. The lack of planning in this regard seems to be giving the dissidents the initiative and at the moment at least, unless there is a huge intelligence breakthrough, it looks as though the dissidents, though vanishingly unlikely to achieve their aims, seem likely to hold that initiative.