Newton Emerson: Road safety drive requires reversal of attitudes in PSNI

Irish News columnist Newton Emerson offers his inimitable take on the weeks’s news headlines

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Speed cameras recorded motorists breaking the speed limit 48,346 times last year 
Roads policing has suffered a cut of over 10 per cent of staff in the past year

“Nothing is off the table” to address the “epidemic” of road fatalities, chief constable Jon Boucher has said. That would require a reversal of attitudes inside the PSNI.

Although nothing in its remit is more a matter of life and death, roads policing suffers disproportionate cuts, with over 10 per cent of staff – 21 officers – removed in the past year.

The PSNI could implement ‘Operation Snap’, allowing the public to report offences by uploading dash-cam and mobile phone footage. This solution is already on the table, used by most forces in Britain to effectively recruit thousands of unpaid traffic officers. It has the potential to transform driver attitudes overnight.

In the event of an incident involving a fleet vehicle, dash cams can provide valuable evidence in determining fault
The PSNI could implement ‘Operation Snap’, allowing the public to report offences by uploading dash-cam and mobile phone footage

For years, the PSNI said Operation Snap was impractical in Northern Ireland without a change in the law to make careless driving a fixed penalty offence. However, the law was changed last May. All the PSNI has to do now is set up a website, for which tried and tested software is available.

In April last year, it said it would do so and the website would require only one officer to run, yet there is still no sign of it. How is this ‘keeping people safe’?


If a tree is turned back at the sea border and nobody hears about it, will anyone make a sound? That appears to have been the question the government and the DUP pondered when they reached their January deal to restore devolution.

TUV conference at the Ross Park Hotel near Ballymena
TUV leader Jim Allister (I Presseye/Stephen Hamilton/ Presseye/Stephen Hamilton)

Legal guidance just published reveals that information on the operation of the sea border, previously available to Stormont ministers and assembly members, is now owned and controlled by the Northern Ireland Office. The secretary of state will decide who sees this information and whether it can be released under the Freedom of Information Act, which TUV leader Jim Allister has been using to put sea border details in the public domain. Stormont will no longer see anything legally privileged or commercially confidential, the latter providing a particularly broad excuse for secrecy.

Allister sent a mischievous question to Sinn Féin finance minister Caoimhe Archibald about this British seizure of powers but she refused to play along, showing her party is on board for a sea border burial. That gives it every chance of success.


In 2022, DUP agriculture minister Edwin Poots reduced the maximum fine on farmers who repeatedly break pollution rules from 100 per cent of their subsidy to 15 per cent, as this was “a much fairer approach to our hardworking farmers”.

Such pollution is the primary cause of the crisis in Lough Neagh.

Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots launched a consultation on post-Brexit farm payments in December. Picture by Niall Carson/PA Wire
Former Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots reduced the maximum fine on farmers who repeatedly break pollution rules from 100 per cent of their subsidy to 15 per cent

The Green Party brought a motion to Belfast City Council this week calling for the maximum to be reinstated. It was backed by every party except the DUP, including Alliance, which now controls Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. This indicates minister Andrew Muir will act, but success is hardly guaranteed.

The absurd combination of agriculture and environmental enforcement into one department means officials are marking their own homework. Farmers tend to get what they want and they will almost certainly lobby the DUP to try blocking change at the executive.


The farm fines motion is a reminder that the Northern Ireland Green Party is remarkably sensible compared to its sister parties in Britain and even its parent party in the Republic.

Perhaps it is easier to seem relatively normal in Northern Ireland. The Greens have sent England into one of its occasional Muslim panics after a newly-elected councillor in Leeds shouted “Allahu Akbar!” Again, the perspective of Northern Ireland helps to keep this in context. Seen one religious eccentric on the council, seen them all.


An environmental activist has won a legal case against building houses beside rural main roads. Gordon Duff took Newry, Mourne and Down District Council to the Court of Appeal, which found that planning permission for such houses breaches policy against ‘ribbon development’.

This recalls the huge controversy over PPS14, a planning policy statement banning most one-off housing in the countryside, introduced under direct rule in 2006.

It swiftly became apparent many people believe they have a God-given right to build a house in any field they own. Few elected representatives dared to disagree and Stormont relaxed the policy in 2008, shortly after devolution returned. The Court of Appeal’s ruling could have similar consequences.


Journalists Trevor Birney, left, and Barry McCaffrey outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in London
Journalists Trevor Birney, left, and Barry McCaffrey outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in London (Victoria Jones/PA)

The PSNI regularly scanned the phone records of eight “troublemaker” journalists to see if they had police contacts, according to evidence presented to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in London. ‘Troublemaker’ was defined as “always looking for a story”, the definition of journalism itself.

The complaint has been brought by documentary makers Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, wrongly arrested in 2018 over their film on the Loughinisland massacre.

Birney said the PSNI is “absolutely obsessed with journalists and their sources”, an observation that underpins many of the serious questions raised by this case. The 2011 Leveson Inquiry into newspaper ethics revealed police officers can have an unhealthy fascination with the media, to an extent that seems to require psychoanalysis as much as regulation.


Some are objecting to the public history project on British policy towards Northern Ireland during the Troubles, claiming government control of files released to the project’s historians means the work will be compromised. This is a valid concern, although insisting on all or nothing access to sensitive records is effectively insisting on nothing.

Less valid are complaints the historians will not be from a balanced mix of unionist and national backgrounds. They may be – the project’s five historians have yet to be named by a nine-member expert panel. But if they are not chosen by some kind of community d’Hondt mechanism, so what? It is hard to imagine anything worse for the discipline and profession of history than a notion of ‘cultural appropriation’, where people can only write about their own ancestors. No serious academic should encourage it.


Brothers Adrian and Alister Douglas appeared at Craigavon Magistrates Court in connection with an incident on April 30 which led to them being charged with attempted criminal damage and attempted theft.
Brothers Adrian and Alister Douglas have been sentenced over the intimidation of a young Catholic woman in her Lurgan home

Two Lurgan brothers have been sentenced for sectarian intimidation of a young Catholic woman in her home. The incident was captured on a doorbell camera, helping prosecute a crime that so often goes unpunished. Adrian Douglas will spend 10 months in prison; his older brother Alister’s sentence was suspended.

During the trial, Adrian Douglas professed to drinking five bottles of Buckfast before the incident, a barely plausible 56 units of alcohol. Intoxication is a common plea in the courts, yet the law makes it an aggravating rather than a mitigating factor in most offences. Being drunk is supposed to make your sentence longer.