A heavily fortified PSNI base in south Armagh could be shut down and lands returned to a Gaelic sports club as the force makes a new bid to win support in the strongly republican area.
The recommendation is included in a new report on policing which has been cautiously welcomed by politicians. Drafted by two senior PSNI commanders, it was prompted by outrage over a tweet in 2019 by PSNI Chief Simon Byrne in which he posed with a gang of heavily armed PSNI men at their military-style Crossmaglen base.
The report admits that the PSNI lacks “credibility” in the area and set a five year timetable for change. It also recommends ditching the policy that sees patrols routinely carry assault rifles, and introduce signage in the Irish language.
South Armagh residents have been among the most resistant to British attempts to rebrand the RUC, a force with an infamous history of collusion with unionist death squads.
While many republicans welcomed the review as a step in the right direction, others saw it as a new PR move by a hated colonial police force.
Raising suspicions, the report also called for the PSNI to be able to cross the border to stop and arrest Irish citizens inside the 26 counties in connection with a so-called “hot pursuit”.
Unionists attempted to eviscerate the report even before news of it emerged into the public domain. Among the issues most infuriating to unionists was a recommendation that memorials to deceased members of the RUC could be moved.
Despite considerable fanfare in the mainstream media, it is still unclear what recommendations will ultimately be acted upon. Policing reform plans have been routinely blocked or diluted by unionists in the past, and there were signs of that process repeating again, but nationalist politicians expressed confidence that change is coming.
The report calls for the end of the heavily militarised Crown Force presence in Crossmaglen, which it says is “no longer warranted” in the area. It says the barracks, heavily fortified after serving as a major British Army base, “has an unhelpful impact internally on the mindset of officers and externally on the associations of the local community”.
Part of the base was constructed on the grounds of the local GAA sports club and used as a helicopter pad. It should be closed and a police station in nearby Newtownhamilton be rebranded as the south Armagh police station instead, the report said.
More broadly, it accepted that the culture within the PSNI of treating the local community as the enemy was one of the key problems. It spoke of “full tactical patrols hunkering down behind walls”.
In his comments, Tte PSNI chief himself admitted the base in south Armagh where he was pictured is ‘reminiscent of the Cold War’.
He said: “I visited twice from memory in 2019, and I was quite taken aback at deep-seated concrete walls, high fences and cameras,” he said.
Sinn Féin Assembly member Conor Murphy said the report recognised that the PSNI got its relationship with this community “very badly wrong”. He said that the review “promises us a new beginning”.
“We don’t want any more political policing. We don’t want any more security policing.”
SDLP councillor Peter Byrne said the 2019 tweet as the “tipping point for the community”.
“That image spoke a thousand words, it’s taken nearly two years to get to this point but there has been a lot of engagement from people on the ground,” he said.
But the change of policing strategy in south Armagh has also raised questions for the continuing high-level of police brutality and harassment in Derry.
Aontú Councillor for Derry, Emmet Doyle, called on the PSNI to undertake a review of policing in the city with the objective of removing the “militaristic ‘security’ policing” that he said had produced “scenes of chaos” in nationalist communities affected by PSNI operations.