IRISH policing is in turmoil. Simon Byrne, chief constable of the Police Service of Northern, has apologised but refused to resign after an unprecedented security breach which saw the personal details of 10,000 serving officers and civilian support staff released into the public domain after a Freedom of Information request. It was followed by further incidents of data loss. Laptop computers and documents went missing from cars belonging to two officers. These events happened at a time when the threat level from terrorists was considered severe and just months after the attempted murder of respected detective chief inspector John Caldwell.
The lost details included personal and employment data relating to individuals working in undercover operations and up to 40 police staff based at MI5, the UK’s national security service which has an office in Holywood county Down. Dissident republicans appear to have received the information though it was available online for less than three hours before the gaffe was discovered and the documents taken down. The incident, put down to human error, is damaging on many levels, could compromise some ongoing and sensitive operations and may even lead to serving officers having to move home and uproot their families.
Since its inception the PSNI has struggled to recruit officers and staff from Catholic and nationalist areas where they are vulnerable to intimidation and threats from republican gangs which refuse to accept the Good Friday Agreement. These groups, the rump of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, still consider anyone working for the state to be part of a ‘British war machine’ and a legitimate target. Though they are small in number and have limited resources, they are considered ruthless and capable killers.
Superintendent Gerry Murray, chair of the Catholic Police Guild, which represents hundreds of PSNI employees, called for additional protection for those who feel they are at risk and sought reassurance from the top but warned the embarrassing incident will damage trust in the force and have an impact upon recruitment targets – a key component of Northern Ireland’s fragile political settlement.
It could also prove to be an expensive error at a time when the PSNI budget is under severe pressure and facing the prospect of sweeping cuts. The British government continues to pile pressure upon the public sector in the north in a bid to force the Democratic Unionist Party into government and drop its objections to the Windsor Framework which seeks to smooth post-Brexit trade. More than 2,000 people have registered an interest in joining a class legal action, according to the Police Federation which represents lower ranks. One academic has estimated the final cost of the data breach could top £58m.
Others have warned that the force, which gathers much valuable information on terrorism and crime using a confidential telephone line, has lost the confidence of the public and fear informants will no longer step forward believing they could be identified and targeted because basic information systems are not secure. There is unease, anger and frustration in the ranks at the level of incompetence displayed toward the personal security of so many staff.
In the Republic An Garda Síochána is deeply split over commissioner Drew Harris and his programme of reforms. Though senior officers have expressed no desire to add to his problems the Garda Representative Association, which represents lower ranks, is to put a vote of no confidence in the chief to its 11,000 members. Harris, a former Royal Ulster Constabulary officer, has said he will not resign before his latest two-year term is over and Taoiseach Leo Varadker has expressed support for his beleaguered police chief.
However the harsh reality is that Gardai numbers have been falling since Covid and the training college in Tipperary has closed. Insiders blame poor working conditions in out-of-date stations and increasing demands upon untrained officers on the beat who feel neglected by a state which has never been in better financial shape. Criminal gangs are often well financed and ruthless in pursuit of the huge profits to be made from drugs and human trafficking. They often work alongside dissident republicans who have expertise in acquiring weapons, and have strong links with international criminal organisations which see Ireland as an easy back door into the lucrative European drug market.
The force is struggling to regain public confidence after a series of corruption scandals and there is anger and frustration at the historic lack of political consideration given to the important job of fighting crime in this increasingly prosperous land and diverse society.
No other group of public servants in Ireland has been so deeply affected by the country’s troubled history, partition, dramatic social and economic change. The Royal Irish Constabulary lost more than 680 members in the struggle for independence and the bitter civil war which followed. In the north the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and the part-time B Specials created to support it, found themselves in the front line in the IRA’s long war to undermine the unionist state. Policing has long been a political football for both unionist and nationalist regimes and police officers have been drawn into controversial human rights issues such as abortion and parading. Accusations of collusion with outlawed groups were levelled at both the RUC and the Garda.
There are few likeable police officers in Irish literature and film – a reflection of the nation’s birth pangs, distrust of authority and fear of betrayal to old enemies. But the reality is that the vast majority of serving police officers on both sides of the border carry out a difficult job for little reward and risk their lives every day in the interest of public safety. They have often been required to enforce unpopular laws and make difficult judgements. Yet there is a tradition of service in many families. Grandsons follow fathers and grandfathers into uniform and some families have endured more than their share of tragedy.
It is time they were shown respect and gratitude on both sides of the border.