“The Reviewer states that the residual terrorist threat has continued on broadly the same level as 2010…”

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, MP, has published the Fourth Annual Report [pdf file] of Robert Whalley CB, Independent Reviewer of the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act 2007 .  From Owen Paterson’s statement

The report highlights the continuing security threat posed by residual terrorist groups, the activity of organised criminals and incidents of public disorder.  The Reviewer comments on the importance of the powers under the 2007 Act in dealing with this broad range of security related threats, and therefore recommends that the powers be retained for a further year.

The Reviewer states that the residual terrorist threat has continued on broadly the same level as 2010, but there have been positive signs of suppression of activity.  He notes that the number of persons stopped under the 2007 Act has increased significantly but that overall stop activity by the PSNI has fallen by 36% over the last year.   The Reviewer welcomes the authorisation procedure for the use of stop and search powers which the Government is introducing through the Protection of Freedoms Bill.  He comments on the importance of cross-border co-operation and points to the activity by An Garda Siochana, which has led to a number of arrests.

The report also reflects on the regrettable public disorder which we saw in Northern Ireland earlier this year and the attacks on the police, and the subsequent operational need for powers under the 2007 Act, such as stop and question and entry of premises, as part of the police response.

And from the Independent Reviewer’s conclusions [pdf file]

Operational need and advice

424. As before, I have enquired whether there is likely to be an operational need for these powers, based on evidence from the past year, assessment of the likely security profile, and advice from the police.

425. On all three counts I judge that the case for retention has been made, based on the matters covered principally in Parts 4 and 5 of this report. Recent improvements to the security position, as noted by the Minister of Justice on 14 November, give grounds for encouragement. But that is an argument as much in favour of continuing on the present path as for departing from it.

426. While there is always a danger of holding on overcautiously to a portfolio of powers for longer than is justified, there are unfortunately many indicators suggesting that the current formal assessment of the security threat as “severe” accurately captures present realities.

427. Senior officers in PSNI and ACPO take the view that the police powers in the Act will continue to be needed for a further year. They also regard operational support from the armed forces as an ongoing necessity. That suggests only the limited option of removing those military powers for which there is no demonstrable need, a choice which remains open to Ministers at any time. Of course, other legislative changes will be made – and will come into effect – before the reviewer’s report is written next year.

Other views

428. The range of opinion which I have canvassed this year has been wider than in past years so as to capture a diversity of views as well as the formal views of the political parties and the security authorities.

429. Inevitably, at a time of much change in the security profile, police operations and the legislative basis for them, the comments offered to me have ranged far beyond the operation of these specific powers, and indeed beyond police operations generally. All this comment is valuable in setting the context in which police operations are conducted, especially now that the devolution settlement is becoming more embedded.

430. Comments offered to me about a particular location or police operation, and views about the position across Northern Ireland as a whole, inevitably involve presentation to me of subjective assessments. I take no position between conflicting points of view but reflect on all of them when making my own judgments.

431. The central question, however, which I have raised for discussion is whether these powers should be continued for a further year.

432. Those for whom the security situation remains poised at a critical point think it would be madness to make any change to the present legislative structure, and indeed have questioned whether the police have enough powers, without suggesting particular changes. Some of those believing that no changes should be made nevertheless believe that there are subtle movements in hitherto monolithic attitudes to the police, which require greater flexibility in the way police carry out operations if new opportunities are to be grasped.

433. For others, opposition to these powers is a point of principle of the highest order, not only because of their historical resonance but because they damagingly entrench old attitudes. For some, their continuation, together with the use of stop and search operations under other powers, is now, more than ever, holding back progress towards a normal society. In their view, Northern Ireland will never be set free to move forward without imaginative steps in the area of security, of which abolition of these powers remains a priority.

Concluding judgments

434. The operational indicators lead me to the conclusion that the powers should be continued for a further year. They have formed a major part of the police response to the security situation and I cannot see how they could realistically be removed in the current circumstances, notwithstanding the encouraging signs of progress in some respects.

435. The changes to legislation now in train, including new authorisation and oversight mechanisms, and the production of a Code of Practice specific to these powers, together with renewed operational guidance and training and enhanced recording and monitoring, offer opportunities to continue the downward trend in stop and question and stop and search activity in response to the security profile which is evident from the statistics this year.

436. There is no reason why this downward trend should not be continued. But where the police see no alternative to using these powers, I have no doubts that they should do so.