PSNI Chief Simon Byrne is to meet a group of Armagh political representatives amid continuing anger over a picture he published on Christmas morning of himself posing alongside heavily armed PSNI men outside their Crown Force base in the village of Crossmaglen.
Byrne and four grinning PSNI men displayed Heckler and Koch submachine guns, most commonly used in assault and battle situations by NATO military forces.
A version of the same weapon has been used by the same force (previously known as the RUC) in a number of deadly gun attacks on the nationalist community.
The inflammatory display was consciously staged outside one of the most heavily fortified Crown Force installations in the border area.
With Brexit still a source of concern, the photograph served as a timely reminder of the oppressive and violent nature of British rule over the border area, which Byrne described as “unique”.
The recently appointed police boss has previously faced accusations of adopting a gung-ho, heavy-handed approach to political tensions in the north of Ireland.
After demanding a meeting, Sinn Féin chief negotiator Conor Murphy and SDLP Slieve Gullion councillor Pete Byrne are to meet the PSNI Chief in the Ardmore PSNI base in Newry next Tuesday afternoon, January 7.
Speaking over what they described as the “offensive” social media post, the SDLP demanded an explanation of his implied threat.
Councillor Byrne said: “While many families across South Armagh were waking up, opening presents and enjoying their Christmas morning, they were hurt and offended to see a Twitter post from the PSNI Chief Constable, featuring officers with heavy weaponry on show.
“This isn’t an ill judged tweet, the wording appears to be a deliberate attempt to set Crossmaglen and South Armagh as a place apart.
He said he wanted to get to the bottom of what the purpose of the picture was.
“Was it a personal judgement call? A lot of people in the community are talking to me and asking if it is part of a bigger game plan to get more resources into the border area and to gauge public opinion.”
Sinn Féin’s Megan Fearon, who has stepped down as an Assembly member for Newry and Armagh, labelled the post “disgraceful”.
“This is a total insult to the people of south Armagh – a generous, kind hearted and proud community,” she said. She described the PSNI’s Crossmaglen facility as a “military style barracks” that “needs to go”.
One local representative not invited to Tuesday’s meeting is Saoradh’s Stephen Murney. Mr Murney was himself subjected to a stop-and-search detention by the PSNI in Newry on Christmas week while holding his frightened young child in his arms.
The sinister post was also published less than 48 hours after a masked and armed PSNI gang raided the offices of a republican prisoners’ group. The Cogús offices in Ardoyne Avenue were searched and a number of items seized.
Byrne has dismissed the controversy as “some emotion” but has also refused to apologise, describing his gunmen as “officers” who were “tackling the severe terrorist threat”.