A no-deal Brexit could see police in Northern Ireland calling in support from other forces in the UK to help manage the border, the region’s police chief has said.
Simon Byrne said a mutual aid request is one option in the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Brexit scenario planning as he warned that policing 300 border crossings is “just not practical”.
Mr Byrne stressed he had not “pressed that button yet” in requesting outside support, and said the PSNI’s primary aim would be to police the fallout from a no-deal exit with its own officers working in co-operation with the Garda south of the border.
He outlined details of the PSNI’s Brexit preparations as he urged the Government to bolster his resources by recruiting a wave of new officers.
The PSNI has around 6,750 officers.
The Government has committed to funding an extra 300 to deal with Brexit, but Mr Byrne wants more than double that number, to bring the total to 7,500 – an operating level envisaged for the PSNI when it was created as part of historic peace process policing reforms.
Mr Byrne, who was visiting a PSNI call handling centre in east Belfast on Thursday, questioned why Boris Johnson’s commitment to recruit 20,000 extra officers in England and Wales had not been extended to Northern Ireland.
“If we go back to the past we talked about a number of 7,500 officers being what Patten (Lord Patten who oversaw policing reforms) saw as the number of officers that I need to police the streets of Northern Ireland and that’s my plea to politicians,” he said.
“At the end of the day the Prime Minister made a commitment in England and Wales to increase the headcount of police officers by 20,000 – when will we see our share here?
“Brexit feeds into this. We have had a support, which we are grateful for, to increase nearly 300 more officers to deal with some of the most immediate problems with Brexit but, at the end of the day, we can only speculate how this is going to play out.
“In the medium term, if I am going to provide a policing service which the public in Northern Ireland have quite clearly said needs to be about more visibility and more people on the ground, I frankly need more officers to do that and my plea is to have our share of what is happening in England and Wales.”
On the consequences of a disorderly EU exit, he added: “The worry is how, practically, despite the rhetoric elsewhere, does anyone expect my officers – whether it’s 6,000 or 7,000, whatever figure you pluck out of the air – are going to police over 300 border crossing in sometimes very isolated and rural locations. It is just not practical.
“The second point is if, even if they try to, they become at a heightened risk of attacks and terrorism because that sort of environment, that sort of countryside, lends itself to ambush and the sort of events we saw on Monday (bomb attack in Co Fermanagh).”
The PSNI drafted in 2,500 officers from other UK forces in June 2013 to support the policing of the G8 summit in Co Fermanagh. A month later, another wave of 930 mutual aid officers were called in to help police disorder around the loyal order parading season.
On the potential of again requesting mutual aid support around Brexit, Mr Byrne said: “Clearly, as part of the planning and preparation, there are different scenarios where we could ask colleagues in England and Wales or Scotland to provide additional officers, and that is part of the scenario planning, but we haven’t pressed that button yet.”
He said the PSNI would initially be relying on its own officers and support from the Garda.
“The first thing is, before we go to that point, we have got to demonstrate to others we have run out of people,” he said. “We are nowhere near that point at the moment.
“The second point is, before we talk about mutual aid from other parts of the UK, it’s about making sure we have a good working relationship with the guards on the other side of the border.
“I was only speaking to the commissioner (Garda Commissioner Drew Harris) yesterday and we are determined to do all we can to make sure that day-to-day life continues as it has done either side of the border post-Brexit.”