South Armagh policing review a chance to move on from Troubles era

‘Bandit country’ tag persists but cross-Border organised crime poses greatest challenge

PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne in Newry on Tuesday after briefing members of the south Armagh community on the details of the report on policing in the area. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

PSNI chief constable Simon Byrne in Newry on Tuesday after briefing members of the south Armagh community on the details of the report on policing in the area. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

To step inside Crossmaglen police station in south Armagh is to step back in time.

The public entrance is a single, metal door with a buzzer set in a facade of corrugated iron; on admittance, the individual makes their way through a concrete corridor to yet another, presumably bomb-proof, door.

A “militaristic and draconian bunker” was how one police constable described it.

The PSNI chief constable, Simon Byrne, went further, saying that when he first visited it he was “quite taken aback at [the] deep-seated concrete walls, high fences and cameras. It looked like a relic from the Cold War, never mind the Troubles.”

The closure of the police station – described as “no longer fit for purpose” – is one of 50 recommendations made in a report published on Tuesday following a review of policing in south Armagh.

It also includes a potentially incendiary political and constitutional proposal that could allow cross-Border “hot pursuit”, whereby members of the Garda and PSNI could chase suspects into their neighbouring jurisdictions.

The most comprehensive examination of policing since the Patten review, the report highlighted that the approach to policing the area was still viewed through what was effectively a wartime rather than a peacetime lens.

Arguably, this was self-evident from Byrne’s tweet which sparked the review in the first place; a snap of the chief constable posing with heavily-armed PSNI officers outside that same police station on Christmas Day last year.

Chief constable Simon Byrne (centre) poses with heavily-armed PSNI officers outside Crossmaglen police station on Christmas Day last year. Photograph via Twitter
Chief constable Simon Byrne (centre) poses with heavily-armed PSNI officers outside Crossmaglen police station on Christmas Day last year. Photograph via Twitter

At the time, Sinn Féin MLA Conor Murphy said the image was “reflective of the militaristic style of policing” of the past.

As local SDLP councillor Pete Byrne put it on BBC radio on Tuesday: “This institutionalised, militarised view of south Armagh was being tweeted out like a badge of honour.”

The “bandit country” tag, it seemed, persisted, even though these days the greatest challenge facing the police in south Armagh is not any paramilitary threat but rather those posed by cross-Border organised crime.

The chief constable has described it as a chance to “reset the dial”; to replace the outdated approach and tone with “a more modern style of policing based on neighbourhood policing teams.”

Ambitious plans

The plans are ambitious and wide-ranging, and with a time scale ranging from immediate – some are understood to be already in force – to five years; time will tell how many will eventually be implemented.

Perhaps inevitably, criticism has fallen on suggestions such as the proposed relocation of memorials to police officers killed during the Troubles, though Byrne has said this “won’t be one we take forward immediately” and there will be consultation.

He has also admitted the recommendation on Irish-language messaging, which could apply to police signage in south Armagh, is on hold, with “no plans immediately” to change signage.

On cross-Border co-operation, the suggestion of a bilateral agreement to permit “joint rather than parallel policing operations” between the PSNI and Garda – though operationally a logical extension of the close co-operation that already exists – is likely to be regarded as a “cross-cutting” issue, in the Stormont jargon, which would therefore require the approval from the Northern Executive as a whole, not just the Minister for Justice.

There also remains the question as to whether the recommendations in the report could be extended to other areas – not least other parts of the Border – or to other communities, such as loyalist communities which have reported disillusionment with policing.

Byrne did not rule this out, saying it could be a “blueprint” and he was open to examining “how do we use this approach to do a deeper dive within policing different communities across the country”.

In the meantime, he suggested, “Let the dust settle. Let’s see how we get on with recommendations here and convince people that we’re serious in what we say.”