BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland’s new police chief warned on Saturday that a hard Brexit could have a “detrimental” impact on two decades of peace in the British-run province and risk his officers becoming targets for militants.
Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable Simon Byrne, appointed last month after a career in English policing, raised concerns about how he was supposed to police the almost 300 border crossing with the Irish republic if Britain leaves the European Union without a deal in just over three months.
Britain, Ireland and the EU want to avoid a return of physical checks on the border, which was marked by military checkpoints before a 1998 peace deal between Catholic nationalists seeking a united Ireland and Protestant unionists who wanted to keep Northern Ireland British.
However how to manage what will become Britain’s only land border with the EU - including the contested “backstop” or insurance mechanism to prevent checks - remains the most contentious part of Britain’s divorce deal that the contenders to become the country’s next prime minister want renegotiated.
“I think we are worried that in the short term a hard Brexit will create a vacuum which becomes a rally call and recruiting ground for dissident (Irish) republicans and clearly any rise in their popularity or their capability would be very serious,” Byrne told a news conference.
The concerns follow similar warnings by the Irish government this week that a no-deal Brexit could fuel recruitment among the small remaining militant groups in both nationalist and unionist communities, requiring the immediate deployment of Irish police to the border if Britain crashes out.
Byrne said his officers were in discussion with senior civil servants to make their concerns clear and that he was looking to London in particular for advice on how the border should be policed ahead of the scheduled Oct. 31 exit.
He also worried that the economic damage of a no-deal Brexit could lead to unrest. Northern Ireland’s civil service warned this week that such a scenario would have a deep and long-lasting impact on the region’s economy and could cause 40,000 people in the 780,000 workforce to lose their jobs.
“If we go into a worst case scenario... If tariffs change, we will see the prospect of animals being culled, people going out of business, that may lead to unrest and we having to protect other agencies as we go to support new arrangements,” Byrne said.
“The minute we go into the border in that regard our worry is my officers and staff become a target for the dissident republicans.”
Editing by Padraic Halpin and Ros Russell