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Breaching PSNI data makes it easier to take down the police – but other issues get lost in the headlines

The latest crisis headlines in the north are of a major PSNI data breach and Chief Constable Simon Byrne is under renewed pressure.

But this police mishap represents only part of what is broken in Northern Ireland.

Police expert and University of Ulster academic Dr. Jonny Byrne, in his choice of words to describe the events, is blunt: “The breach is only relevant because Northern Ireland is still fucked up.”

This blunt summary is a clear testament to his frustration that officers are still having to search under their cars for bombs and change their routes of work, nearly 25 years after the Patten report, which pointed the way to a “fresh start” for policing in Northern Ireland .

“Why can’t they hang their uniforms on the clothesline? Why are there cover stories?” he asked.

In other words, why do cops still have to hide their careers?

He knows the answers to his questions.

The reason for this is the continued threat from dissident Republicans, and that’s the biggest concern following a data breach that falsely disclosed information on all acting officers and civilian employees.

What could the dissidents of 2023 do with this information?

In September 1999, when this Independent Police Commission report was published, the dissidents were in hiding.

After the Omagh bombing in August 1998 they had been forced to retreat due to the death toll and had to go into hiding because of the shame of the day.

But they’ve since resurfaced, reorganizing under so many different titles that it’s hard to keep track of them.

Are they still dangerous? Yes.

Could you kill another cop? Yes.

But that threat existed long before the data breach, and the recruitment of Catholics into the PSNI had also slowed.

The new beginning was a long, slow road. Change is never easy in Northern Ireland.

“Why do people still have to hide their identities?” The same question is being asked by former Deputy Chief of Police Peter Sheridan, the PSNI’s most senior Catholic officer when he left the police force in 2008 and now leader of the peace organization Co-operation Ireland.

like dr Byrne, he knows the answer and understands the seriousness of the data breach, but also sees the bigger picture and what else is broken.

“Police work is far too important to be left to the police alone. Part of that is also the responsibility of all of us to support the police project.”

Speaking to Irish Times Northern Editor Freya McClements at the Community Arts Festival Féile Derry last week, I spoke about this: “You can’t start new policing with broken politics, with a past unanswered, with MI5 still part of the present, and with only lukewarm support from the Republican community.

This is the larger context and responsibility that Sheridan is pointing out – which is what he means when he says that policing isn’t just about the police.

The past is still a political struggle and stones from the years of conflict are still being thrown in the many greenhouses that dot the site

He takes us back to September 1999, to the recommendations of the Independent Police Commission for Northern Ireland and the comments of its chairman, Conservative politician Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and now Chancellor of Oxford University: “We believe that it it is possible to find a policing solution to the policing problem, but only if you take politics out of policing.” That is a central part of this report – the depoliticization of policing.”

This report coincided with political negotiations that would eventually pave the way for the formation of a Stormont Executive as part of the implementation of the Belfast Accords.

Today that executive branch is once again lost in purgatory, and the euphoria and hope of that 1998-1999 period has been lost as many have become complacent about peace.

I was at the Patten press conference in 1999 and the graduation ceremony in April 2002 when the first PSNI recruit started this new beginning.

But taking the politics out of anything in Northern Ireland is always easier said than done.

The past is still a political struggle and stones from the years of conflict are still being thrown in the many greenhouses that dot the site. Policing is still a political argument. Stormont not working.

All of this gets lost in the data breach headlines, but it’s all part of the police problem; a failure of leadership – a broken policy that plays into everything, makes peace a struggle and turns young people away from the PSNI.

The dissident threat is different now; no longer the same as it was in the late 1990s, when those who had split from the mainstream IRA left with all the know-how and ability to move on.

We saw that with the Moira, Portadown and Banbridge bombings in 1998 – they were so similar to the actions of the IRA that it took some time to figure out that it was in fact a new threat from those who had just left .

This conversation shouldn’t wait until the next cop is killed. Then it will be too late. It should start now

Omagh actually stopped them, and today’s challenge is to stop them again.

This is a political and social challenge as well as a police task.

The Irish Government needs to be part of this conversation, as do political parties across the island and all those who know the pulse of their communities and have influence.

The police department needs to wake up and get involved too.

This conversation shouldn’t wait until the next cop is killed. Then it will be too late. It should start now: a dialogue about getting the dissidents to stop and gaining meaningful support for policing.

Former police chiefs Ronnie Flanagan and Hugh Orde took the difficult first steps that made the transition from the RUC to the PSNI possible.

They were leaders at the right time.

The takeaway from this is that you won’t build anything new until you deal with the old.

I found a line in an October 1999 Police Federation speech that reads, “The key to Catholic recruitment is peace: not a name change.”

It’s both. The dissidents did not allow this peace and this threat is part of what has yet to be addressed.

It’s easy – and the data breach has made it easier – to put a stop to policing, but we fool ourselves if we think that’s the only problem.

Everything either works or it fails, and that brings us back to Peter Sheridan’s comment that it’s not just about the police.

· Brian Rowan is a journalist, former BBC security editor and author of several books on the peace process

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