Senior PSNI officer sees battle with dissident republican violence as being a long haul


INTERVIEW: Policing methods and a hearts-and-minds strategy will be employed in tandem

DREW HARRIS, the assistant chief constable with one of the most challenging posts in the PSNI, says the battle against dissident republicans will continue relentlessly and will go on for a long time.

It has been an up-and-down period for Harris, who as head of PSNI crime operations is charged with combating the threat from the dissidents.

Just over a week ago the Massereene murders trial concluded with the conviction of Brian Shivers for the killings of British soldiers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey. Lurgan republican Colin Duffy was acquitted of the killings.

The trial of former Sinn Féin councillor Brendan McConville and John Paul Wootton for the Continuity IRA murder in Craigavon, Co Armagh, of Constable Stephen Carroll two days after the Massereene murders in March 2009 continues at the Crown Court in Laganside in Belfast.

Nobody has been charged with the murder of Constable Ronan Kerr, who died in an under-car bomb attack in Omagh in April last year. His killing is still being actively investigated, according to police, as are the murders of Constable Carroll and those of the two soldiers.

These are the most high-profile relatively recent murders that dissidents have admitted. But they have also been involved in other killings, numerous bomb and gun attacks, including recently in Belfast and Derry, and in so-called punishment shootings. The threat level from the dissidents, as measured by MI5, remains “severe”: that is, an attack from them is “highly likely”. In terms of dealing with that real and present threat and tackling all that purist republican crime and putting people in prison, the buck stops with Harris.

He is a quiet, reflective individual who started as a constable in the RUC in 1983 and rose steadily through the ranks. He views the dissidents as “near fascist”, a group “whose mindset is absolutely certain of the validity of their argument, so certain they feel they have the right to inflict violence on others”. In a time when there is political stability and a political dispensation supported by the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland, what they are doing “defies logic”, he says, in an interview at police headquarters at Knock in east Belfast, given ahead of the Massereene judgment.

But he knows too that it is their narrow view that makes them dangerous and unpredictable. The policing and intelligence strategy is to hit them with everything they can, he explains, and at community level to win the battle for hearts and minds. And that battle will run just as long as the dissidents run.

It is a multi-pronged approach of community and criminal policing; in the latter case dealing with the actual paramilitary threat but also targeting dissidents for more common forms of criminality such as drug-dealing, smuggling, drink-driving, fuel-laundering, petty criminality and “for whatever vulnerabilities there are in their lifestyle”.

If known or suspected dissidents are seen to be living beyond their means, then the Criminal Assets Bureau in the South and the Serious Organised Crime Agency in the North will target them, Harris explains. If there are suspected tax issues, then the tax authorities are brought in. “We have been going solid at this for two years now,” he says. It is a quiet war of attrition, most of which does not make big news.

The PSNI, Garda and MI5 and their dissident opponents are braced for a long conflict. “I think they themselves see it as a long-term project that they are engaged in. I don’t think they particularly see success in terms of weeks or months but they look at this in terms of years. We need to put our own timescale against this as well,” says Harris.

He says the dissidents can be resisted and does not believe the support systems or “emotional drivers” are present to allow for anything approaching a successful campaign of violence over the coming years.

Harris adds that garnering support on the ground to resist the dissidents is also crucial. The symbolism of GAA members carrying the coffin of Constable Kerr last year was powerful and still resonates in demonstrating the now extensive endorsement of the Belfast Agreement and the new policing and justice arrangements. The successful visit of Queen Elizabeth to the Republic also contributed. “These things are important. It keeps the agenda moving forward of a society at peace with itself as opposed to a society at conflict with itself.”

Harris recalls how after the 1998 Real IRA Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people including a woman pregnant with twins, there was a “weight of public opinion” against the dissidents.

“We need to keep mobilising that weight of public opinion. Together with our Garda colleagues we can chip away at them, lock them up, but the long-term thing that will erode them is if there is no public support for their actions. What happened in terms of the response to Ronan Kerr was very important in driving that message home to them.”

He says the dissidents have an “insidious” and “medieval” way of developing a support base. “For instance shooting people for what they term anti-social behaviour, or shooting people facing sexual assault or indecency offences. They’ll say, ‘if you are concerned about sex offenders in your area don’t worry we’ll shoot them’ – that sort of thing.”

Harris adds that that is why developing and improving community policing, particularly in “hard-to-reach communities”, must be a constant focus for the PSNI. “Our major aim is to make sure of a good-quality police presence on the ground. It’s about developing a counter-narrative to the rubbish that they spout.”