Northern Ireland news

PSNI lacks ‘credibility' in south Armagh as report recommends ditching assault rifles

 Simon Byrne faced criticism for his Christmas day visit to Crossmaglen.
Dominic McGrath, PA

A major review of policing in south Armagh has found that the PSNI lacks “credibility” in the area and has called for the closure of Crossmaglen police station.

The report, which makes 50 recommendations for reform, also found that the perception of the risk to officers in the area was “distorted and inaccurate”.

The 172-page review, published today, was sparked by a controversial photo of the chief constable posing alongside officers with rifles.

Simon Byrne posted the tweet outside Crossmaglen police station in south Armagh on Christmas Day 2019.

As well as apologising, criticism of the photo led to Mr Byrne announcing a review of policing in the south Armagh area.

That review makes a series of wide-ranging recommendations that call for drastic change in how the area is policed over the next five years.

These include that consideration should be given to using of Irish in messages and signs, “exploring” the relocation of memorials to murdered police officers in stations, and the exploration of facilitating joint rather than parallel policing with the Garda Siochana to enable “hot pursuit between policing jurisdictions”.

Mr Byrne met representatives of the local community in south Armagh this morning to brief them on the findings.

Crossmaglen and the wider south Armagh area witnessed widespread republican activity during the Troubles and the report is highly critical of current policing in the area and suggests that it no longer requires a heavily militarised police presence.

“Demand does not support the need for two stations in south Armagh,” the report found.

The review says the legacy of the Crossmaglen station, which was heavily fortified during the Troubles, “has an unhelpful impact internally on the mindset of officers and externally on the associations of the local community”.

“Evidence indicates that Crossmaglen police station does not provide a positive or effective policing presence and that service and visibility can be enhanced across Slieve Gullion without this physical infrastructure,” the report states.

Instead, Newtownhamilton police station would be rebranded as south Armagh police station.

The report also calls says that G36 assault rifles should no longer be routinely carried in south Armagh.

“Community consultation would strongly suggest that heavily armed police are not approachable and serve to reinforce stereotypes of a bygone era,” the review found.

Mr Byrne said todayy that some of the findings make for “challenging” reading.

“They reflect that we have not made the progress in south Armagh that we have in other areas and that our approach to policing does not currently reflect the needs and priorities of the local community,” the chief constable said in a statement.

“A lot of work is already under way by local officers to make progress against these findings.”

More broadly, the report found that the culture within the PSNI, locally and more broadly, is one of the key problems with policing in south Armagh.

“South Armagh is consistently referred to as a ‘unique’ policing environment that justifies a security-laden policing response. The review suggests that it is not the environment that is unique but the policing model. This model and outlook is limiting progress towards a community focused policing service,” the report found.

The review found that policing in south Armagh can be seen as “unapproachable and intimidating” and calls “depressingly stark” the contrasting perspectives of the community and police officers on the area.

One section of the report was critical of the lack of engagement with community organisations and elected representatives.

In the future, it recommends that neighbourhood policing be placed “front and centre” in south Armagh, backed by “increased investment” in the area.

The review also recommends exploring relocating police memorials to “an agreed space in the station away from public locations and main thoroughfares”.

While it notes that this is a “sensitive” issue, the review points out that such memorials are viewed differently by various communities.

“Memorials commemorating the past continue to have a profound impact on the police culture of today.

“This is particularly relevant for south Armagh where the level of police loss was great.

“This review suggests that the station working environment in south Armagh has a negative impact on the mindset of police officers who work there, extending to those who have no lived experience of conflict,” the review says.

Elsewhere, the report notes that hi-vis police uniforms should be routinely worn for visibility and reassurance.

The report noted: “The predominant officer perspective was… risk-averse and demonstrated considerable resistance to the concept of wearing hi-visibility patrol uniform or visible patrolling methods.”

It quotes one local officer as saying: “It’s just the way it has always been in south Armagh.

“(We) don’t see the value. The public don’t care – they are more interested in the job you do.

“Bosses think hi-vis is more important than it is.

“There is more to service delivery than what you wear/look like.”

Another constable said: “It is very controversial to be in hi-vis, to go out on foot, even in Newtownhamilton.

“It is very RUC with full tactical patrols down the street hunkering down behind walls. Why?” 

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy welcomed the major review of policing in south Armagh.

The Newry and Armagh MLA said: "I think the report recognises that the PSNI got its relationship with this community very badly wrong."

Mr Murphy said that the recommendations will be "very much welcomed in this community".

He said that his party had been calling for these kinds of reforms for years.

"I think sometimes a photograph can say more than the hours and hours of meetings we had for the 10 years running up to that."

He said that the review "promises us a new beginning".

"We don't want any more political policing. We don't want any more security policing."

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