I write this column on the 29th anniversary of the murder of Fearghal Caraher from Cullyhana. Mr Caraher had been the victim of systemic harassment by the RUC in the lead in to the Royal Marines shooting him dead. The harassing RUC were based at Crossmaglen Barracks. Sited beside Crossmaglen Rangers GAA club, RUC officers and British army soldiers had to be flown in and out with heavy artillery guiding the helicopters. All while the people who actually lived in the place, trained, played and socialised in the GAA grounds on its doorstep. It was a physical epitome of occupation.
Social media at Christmas is usually pretty standard fare of hope and goodwill to all. Sadly the PSNI’s Chief Constable social media was a wholly different offering echoing Christmases Past in South Armagh.
His pictures came from Crossmaglen 2019, a strange choice of venue given the PSNI barracks in Crossmaglen has transformed from the days of conflict and is only open a few hours a week. Tuesday and Thursday from 11am-1pm and on a Saturday from 6pm-8pm. Not Wednesdays, not Christmas Day 2019. But it was not the out of hours visit that caused people to stop in their tracks. It was the picture of Mr Byrne with four of his colleagues, two of whom posing with heavy duty rifles. It was reminiscent of the heavy, dark days of conflict when the RUC would stand posing in their militarised version of disgraced policing. And all of the resulting echoes of the RUC, militarisation, shoot-to-kill and disgrace evoked by those photographs were heard loud and clear on Christmas Day as we read the tweet in disbelief.
The response was unanimous from the population of Crossmaglen and the politicians that represent it. That it was ill-judged at best, and in no way reflected the contextual reality for modern policing. The wider response from commentators, journalists and others on social media was equally swift. This was an unwarranted, unhelpful and bizarre tweet and another misstep from a tone–deaf chief constable.
This was in further evidence on St Stephens Day when he refused to withdraw the tweet and issued a statement justifying the display of heavy artillery as reflecting the terrorist threat his officers operate with. Presumable on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and Saturday evenings. It insulted the intelligence of anyone with half a genuine concern. His response displays the signs of a bully, a weak man trying to act hard and when called out refuses to accept responsibility and blames the “bad boys”.
The Six Counties has never had acceptable policing. Policing has always operated at different stages of history to reinforce British occupation, the Protestant State for a Protestant people since partition, British military policy during the conflict and extremely sinister policies of shoot to kill and collusion. The PSNI is meant to be the new beginning we deserve and need. Human rights compliant, accountable, community based, responsive and supported policing that meets our needs as a community in its entirety. Many of us have tried to make that potential a reality. This Chief Constable doesn’t get it, and most worryingly of all he appears to be too arrogant and bullying in approach to learn. If policing was in crisis under George Hamilton for its defence of the RUC, which it was, then things have worsened under the clueless Mr Byrne.