Border gardai shortages exposed in Brexit information vacuum

Ballybofey is a busy market town in Co Donegal with around 5,000 people. It sits on the national road network 20 minutes from the Border. The main Bus Eireann depot for buses coming from all over the country is five minutes across the river in Stranorlar.

For the past six months, the town’s gardai have been conducting their policing duties without a patrol car, driving around in their own vehicles. But, according to local gardai, an instruction came down from on high that Ballybofey should “borrow” a patrol car from the garda station at Carrigans, a smaller town right on the Border, just south of Derry.

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Now Carrigans is without a patrol car. The town, whose famous visitors included Agatha Christie, has featured occasionally in Border crime news over the years, such as when dissident republicans were suspected of robbing the local post office.

Carrigans and Ballybofey are not alone.

According to garda representative bodies, the number of garda cars is decreasing across Co Donegal. Front-line gardai are preparing to lose a quarter of their fleet of patrol cars over the coming year. Thirteen of the 50-strong fleet are being retired and local garda managers have been told there is currently no money in the budget to replace them. The Garda Representative Association (GRA) in the region has warned that the diminished fleet adds to the uncertainty felt by its rank and file members at what may prove to be the most critical time in policing since the Troubles.

“There are 13 vehicles, there are around six gone and seven more approaching end of life. And we are being told there is no money to replace them,” said Brendan O’Connor, the Garda Representative Association’s spokesman for the area.

According to O’Connor, garda numbers in the county are still fewer than they were during the boom. And although there is an armed garda support unit in Ballyshannon, it is not a 24-hour service and the response time for the nearest back-up units can take up to three hours.

“This is happening in an environment where we have attempts made to kill police officers basically within five minutes of Lifford and 10 minutes of Buncrana and Burnfoot,” said O’Connor.

For any provincial town, this is not ideal policing. For provincial towns close to the Border, while under threat of a no-deal Brexit and with predictions of alarming lawlessness, it looks worse.

Rank and file gardai are speaking out against a backdrop of uncertainty over force’s top secret Border policing plan for Brexit. The Garda Representative Association has called on Garda Commissioner Drew Harris to publish his policing plan for Brexit.

Harris, a former PSNI officer known for his discretion, announced his new policing plan for the country last month. It will rationalise 28 divisions down to 19, reducing the numbers of chief superintendents and superintendents in each, and increasing the size of the area to be policed. But senior officers are sceptical about claims it could release between 500 and 1,000 gardai from administrative duties.

If they are to form part of the commissioner’s policing plan for the Border, he is revealing nothing. He has warned that Brexit uncertainty is making it very difficult to plan Garda strategies. The Government was pushed to concede this month that there will have to be some checks on goods, and some of them near the Border.

The Government’s upbeat assessment is in contrast to the British government’s. It was forced by a vote of MPs last week to publish its stark assessment of the security risks posed by the country leaving the European Union without a deal.

The document, codenamed Operation Yellowhammer, predicts that as EU tariffs are imposed on goods, the price differences will grow the “illegitimate economy”. Smuggling will be particularly severe in Border counties where “both criminal and dissident groups already operate with greater threat and impunity”.

The ability of enforcement agencies to respond quickly to events could be put at risk by an accumulation of incidents such as illegal fishing, smuggling and illegal migration, and disorder or criminality that might follow, such as violent protests or blockades. It said sharing law enforcement data with the European Union will be disrupted and there may be a rise in public disorder.

The combination of organised “ordinary” crime and terrorist activity is a lethal combination, with one aiding and abetting the other.

Police on both sides of the Border regard the New IRA as posing the biggest security threat to the region. The terror group was responsible for murdering journalist Lyra McKee in Derry earlier this year and has been linked to the murder of two prison officers. Security sources say they have established a cross-Border stronghold which spans Derry and the Donegal towns along the Border.

Gardai and police have pointed out that any physical Border infrastructure will be under threat from dissident republicans. But according to one security source, the more criminal activity and smuggling, the harder the Border becomes. The greater the need for Border checks and policing patrols and the more visible the patrols and checks, the more vulnerable they are to attacks from “opportunistic” terrorist attacks.

Joan Burton, the Labour Party TD and former minister, said the problem with smuggling is that it is “embedded” and the subject of numerous briefings when she was in government.

She submitted several parliamentary questions about the readiness of the Revenue and Customs officials to tackle smuggling. She has heard that Revenue officials and Customs are “upping the standard” of their significant headquarters or office accommodation in Dundalk. The minister confirmed that Revenue has not bought up any land, has recruited 600 additional staff, and will continue to police smuggling as it has always done.

“The problem is that even at this point in time, as most people know, there is a persistent problem with smuggling on both sides of the Border,” she said.

“The real problem is this: is there going to be a significant expansion in smuggling along the Border? That could potentially mean a very significant loss of Revenue, particularly to the Government here but also to the government in the North,” she said.

Rank and file gardai have more pressing concerns, not least of which is the safety of themselves and of civilians. Senior officer groups like the Association of Garda Superintendents have been critical of the lack of information but they have not actually asked the commissioner for his plan, respecting the need for confidentiality, given the security issues at stake.

The policing information vacuum is causing pre-Brexit jitters. James Morrisroe, a GRA representative in the Cavan Monaghan Division, said: “No extra resources as of yet in the event of a hard Brexit. Nowhere near enough front-line gardai to deal with Brexit complexities from a policing perspective.

“There are 169 Border crossings in the Cavan Monaghan Division so it’s pretty obvious where the pressure on resources will be. I am not aware of any contingency plans in the event of any potential Brexit, hard or soft.

“Is it a case that the Border divisions will be policed by temporarily transferred gardai from all over the country as has happened during the foot and mouth and BSE crises in 1996 and 2001?”

Gardai joke that the policing plan for Brexit has become like Brexit itself – they’re told it’s going to happen, but no one seems to know what’s actually going to happen.

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