The Irish Times view on cross-Border crime: facing the Brexit threat

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris believes dissident republicans will attempt to exploit any form of hard border

Brexit will not only threaten trading arrangements and living standards on this island but have fundamental implications for the operation of security services. A cross-Border crime conference attended by Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan last week was presented with a joint Garda Síochána/PSNI assessment of the likely consequences. These included a potential rise in dissident republican activity; people-trafficking for prostitution and labour exploitation; fuel laundering; alcohol and cigarette smuggling; drugs and arms importation and lone-wolf terrorist threats.

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said he believed dissident republicans will attempt to exploit any form of hard border and that the UK leaving the EU would generate security risks. PSNI deputy chief constable Stephen Martin agreed. A hard border would be "a backward step" and bring with it "complications and difficulties". Joint policing and security events of this kind have taken place for the past 16 years. Because of Brexit, however, this one was particularly useful, concentrating on criminal threats; a need for continuing close cooperation between police and tax authorities and challenges posed within the Common Travel Area.

There was an element of “preparing for the worst, while hoping for better” in aspects of the joint assessment. Nobody challenged the view that a hard border could become a rallying issue for dissident republicans and contribute to a resumption of political violence. Preservation of an open border would, however, bring its own challenges. Policing and tax authorities would have to deal with highly mobile burglary gangs; tackle drink, drugs and cigarette smuggling; money and diesel laundering and people-trafficking.

There has been a surge in people-smuggling for labour exploitation over recent years linked with organised prostitution rackets and trafficking to evade immigration authorities. It was agreed that international criminal gangs and terrorist groups may come to view Northern Ireland as a weak UK entry point and attempt to exploit it. People-trafficking from there into Britain was likely to become more lucrative and international terrorists might enter in this way. In that context, closer police cooperation and a sharing of security intelligence is vital.

The Brexit vote has been closely identified with an aggressive anti-immigration campaign and, because of that, the Garda Síochána anticipates that additional security checks may have to be introduced on cross-channel traffic in the South. The PSNI anticipates a similar response in the North. The terms of a Brexit deal remain under review. But policing and tax officials are determined the Joint Agency Task Force, established under the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015, will play a lead role in fighting cross-Border crime.