Policing in Northern Ireland has rarely been easy. Because of the Troubles – the armed conflict that scarred the region for decades – officers of the Police Service of Northern Ireland carry guns and wear body armour while on patrol, unlike their counterparts in Great Britain or in the Republic of Ireland. Given the serious threat PSNI police officers face from dissident Irish republican paramilitaries, many go to great lengths to maintain their personal security – sometimes even hiding their employment from friends, family and neighbours.
The job of policing Northern Ireland has just become even harder. Although the full story is still emerging, it appears that a reply to a Freedom of Information request posted online included personal data about more than 10,000 PSNI officers and civilian staff, including its chief constable, Simon Byrne.
It is difficult to think of a more catastrophic error for an organisation whose officers are targets for assassination. In terms of damage to operational security and morale, it is comparable to the IRA’s theft of sensitive documents from an east Belfast police station in 2002 that included a list of details and code names of paramilitary agents and their handlers.
The PSNI has swiftly apologised but the damage will be long lasting. Officers and their families may have to be relocated, and the work of recruiting from Northern Ireland’s two main communities will suffer as those thinking of a career with the police observe a colossal failure to protect officers’ identity and security. In addition, a question mark now hangs over the future of Mr Byrne, the chief constable.
Meanwhile, in the Republic of Ireland, Drew Harris, the Commissioner of the Garda Siochana – the country’s police force – face a no-confidence vote from an association representing 11,000 rank and file officers over rostering and resources. The Irish government insists that Mr Harris – who also served for years in the PSNI and its predecessor, the Royal Ulster Constabulary – has its full support, regardless of the ballot’s result.
It seems that policing in Ireland – north and south – will be under the microscope for some time.