A major PSNI data breach may undermine the ability of the police and security services to keep tabs on dissident republicans, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said.
He said the fact that the personal information of police officers and civilian staff is in the hands of dissidents raises the threat level faced by the PSNI.
Former Stormont justice minister Naomi Long warned the data leak will have serious consequences for retention and recruitment in policing in Northern Ireland.
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne said on Monday he believes the information on police officers and staff mistakenly released is in the hands of dissident republicans, who are opposed to the peace process.
Mr Byrne said he thought dissidents would use the information to intimidate and target police.
His comments came after documents containing information from the breach were posted on a wall near a Sinn Fein office in Belfast.
Last week the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) revealed a document had mistakenly been shared online which included the names of about 10,000 officers and staff.
Details released included the surname and first initial of every employee, their rank or grade, where they are based and the unit they work in.
Sir Jeffrey told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Well I certainly think that confirmation that dissident republicans have this data raises the security threat to an even higher level for serving police officers, their families and civilian staff employed by the PSNI.
“It’s not just the security of those officers, their families and the staff, but it’s also the security infrastructure itself.
“This data included very sensitive information about the PSNI’s work with the security service in Northern Ireland and of course it’s been the success of the security service and the PSNI in infiltrating dissident republicans that has minimised their ability to operate effectively in Northern Ireland.
“I’m very concerned that not only is there a risk to the lives of those serving with the police in Northern Ireland, but this may also undermine the capacity of the police and the security service to keep tabs on the dissident republicans who of course pose the major threat in Northern Ireland.”
Sir Jeffrey said he would “suspend judgment” for now on whether Mr Byrne should resign.
He said: “I don’t want to leave the PSNI leaderless at this stage.
“I think it is important that the chief constable oversees at this stage of the process because that leadership is necessary to ensure stability within the PSNI.”
Alliance Party leader Mrs Long has said she is “extremely worried” about the future of policing in Northern Ireland.
She told Today: “This is going to have long-term ramifications at many levels.
“It also has, I think, serious consequences in terms of retention and recruitment.
“Police already face an extraordinary level of threat, as do staff members within the PSNI, and now their details… are out in the public domain and it was inevitable that they would fall into the wrong hands once they had been published.”
She added that the data breach is going to be a “real challenge” for morale in the PSNI.
Asked if she believes the chief constable should resign, she said: “I tend not to jump to knee-jerk reactions when it comes to demanding people’s resignations.”
She also said that without an executive or Assembly, the appointment of a new chief constable would be “impossible” and it is “better” to have “some leadership” in the force.
“But we’ve been very clear with the chief constable that ultimately he is responsible for the organisation and for what happens within it, and I don’t think anyone can be in any doubt that he is fully aware of the weight of that responsibility,” she added.
Thousands of officers have expressed concern for their safety in Northern Ireland, where police are under threat from terrorists – with the current level of threat assessed as severe, meaning an attack is highly likely.
Earlier this year, dissident republicans were blamed for the attempted murder of senior PSNI detective John Caldwell.
The Police Federation of Northern Ireland, which represents rank-and-file PSNI officers, said on Monday that almost 3,000 officers had expressed an interest in the event of legal action following the major data breach.
Former Irish premier Bertie Ahern said he does not understand how the details of PSNI officers and staff were all kept in one system.
“What’s happened, why it’s happened, I don’t know, I don’t get it – how 10,000 people were all in one system, particularly intelligence people – but I’m sure that will all come out in the wash,” he told Newstalk.