PSNI could have kept John Boreland safe by locking him up

Festering loyalist feud and the criminality behind it have been as public as a parade

“On the day of his death, John Boreland’s own name was in print. He was almost certainly aware of this.” Photograph: AFP/PSNI

“On the day of his death, John Boreland’s own name was in print. He was almost certainly aware of this.” Photograph: AFP/PSNI

 

The PSNI’s slogan is “keeping people safe”. This is variously described in official documents as its purpose, strategy and vision. It is also its hashtag. Last week, an annual appraisal from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found the PSNI “does not have a crime-prevention strategy” and is “not consistently good” at protecting victims of crime. However, the force was still judged to be “using its resources well to keep people safe”.

A policing operation in Belfast last Sunday might be said to show these contradictions at work. Officers stopped a dissident republican protest entering the city centre in breach of a Parades Commission ruling, successful avoiding the violence that had been widely feared.

Belfast was kept safe, yet groups linked to the march continue to commit crimes and create victims on a scale far exceeding an unauthorised procession. It was as if the practical limits of law enforcement in Northern Ireland had been summed up in a bizarre ritual.

A few hours later, in north Belfast, those limits were fatally exceeded. UDA leader John Boreland was shot dead in a loyalist feud that has been simmering for months. The dispute, which as always is about money and control of territory, involves the UVF as well as rival factions of the UDA. It is centred on two neighbourhoods of north Belfast, Mount Vernon and Tiger’s Bay, plus the town of Carrickfergus. The PSNI has been keeping a lid on this by deploying a physical presence whenever trouble occurs but the intelligence-gathering presumably going on behind the scenes was ultimately unable to stop a deadly escalation.

What makes all this bizarre is that the feud and the criminality behind it have been as public as a parade. Everything has been covered in detail by the Sunday tabloids. Boreland was “heavily involved in crime”, the BBC reported after the shooting – although it could as easily have reported this before. In a landmark ruling two years ago, Belfast High Court established a blanket defence of investigative journalism regarding paramilitary crime.

On the day of his death, Boreland’s own name was in print. He was almost certainly aware of this, just as hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers were once again being made aware of his criminal activities on behalf of a proscribed organisation.

Boreland could have been kept safe by arresting him and other well-known loyalists, based on any of the allegations in the public domain, with charges to follow based on any part of the PSNI’s mountain of intelligence.

Safety of sources

Instead, that intelligence was used to issue Boreland with warnings that his life was in danger, which can hardly have surprised him. At what point did keeping sources safe trump keeping Boreland safe?

The PSNI generally offers two reasons for not arresting prominent loyalists. The first is that it cannot act without community co-operation, which is both untrue and an appalling abandonment of victims. Few dare complain about loyalists, let alone feuding loyalists, without fearing for their lives.

Interestingly, this excuse is about to be tested in Tiger’s Bay, where residents forced out by the UDA did go to the police, and have now gone to the Police Ombudsman alleging their complaint was ignored. They believe a UDA leader was being protected.

The PSNI’s second reason for not making arrests is that loyalism has a political context, which requires a political solution. Senior officers often issue this challenge directly to Northern Ireland’s all-party policing board.

The Stormont executive has just published a five-year strategy for tackling paramilitarism as part of the Fresh Start agreement. This recommends a slightly tougher approach than the outright bribery of the three-year scheme which proceeded it. However, even if the need for such pragmatism is conceded, loyalists have not been granted even a partial or temporary exemption from the rule of law. The courts have never had any problem maintaining this distinction – it is the police and to some extent prosecutors who are applying “context”. What is their entitlement to do so?

Selective law

Last Sunday’s dissident march was in protest against “internment by remand” – the allegation that anti-agreement republicans are being deliberately locked up en masse without trial. In fact, of the 25 dissident republican prisoners in Northern Ireland, only six are on remand. Others facing serious charges are free on bail. The internment complaint is ridiculous but the contrast between how loyalists and dissidents are treated raises genuine questions. There is no difference in context between them – both are criminal, political and unelectable. Yet only one side appears to be subject to the law and this seems to be highly effective.

The way to keep people safe, including the likes of John Boreland, is to put the likes of John Boreland in jail. Casualties will only mount until that is accepted.

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