As the head of Northern Ireland’s Police Federation warns of “catastrophic” consequences from possible budget cuts of over £100m, Channel 4 News examines why NI’s police still occupy a unique role.

“Being a police officer in Northern Ireland is very personal,” the driver of the police vehicle we’re in tells us. He’s a constable in the North Belfast district and we’ve joined him on response duties. We’re parked outside Asda. His colleague has just handed out a police fine to a shoplifter. It’s run-of-the-mill, non-emergency police work. And yet, such remains the terrorist threat, we’re sitting in an armoured Land Rover with 50 rounds of ammunition on board, and a third officer perched beside me holding a Heckler & Koch G36 assault rifle. In some parts of Belfast this is still a routine deployment.

The driver then makes a striking admission: “All my family know [that I’m a policeman] apart from my son and daughter. My two kids don’t know. It’s too dangerous for me. It brings them under notice from their friends if they happen to let slip.”

He tells us about a cover story he uses. And then we’re off. Their next assignment is to provide security cover for a “VIP” attending a local address. Later they nonchalantly tell us that the VIP is a judge heading to an appointment at the dentist. Northern Ireland’s peace process, remarkable though it’s been, remains a work in progress.

For some, that means – in the battle over an ever-shrinking public sector pot of money – a special case should be made for the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Terry Spence, the head of Northern Ireland’s Police Federation, the body representing rank and file officers, is firmly in that camp. Moreover, this is an issue, he says, which has a UK-wide relevance.

He contends that £60m coming out of the PSNI budget this year and the possibility of at least another £70m possibly next year could severely damage counter-terrorism efforts. During our interview I suggest he’s got a vested interest in painting as alarmist a picture as possible. Federations don’t like cuts. “I’ve no vested interest,” he retorts, adding: “I’m telling it as it is.”

Challenged about where any extra funding would come from, he replies: “The reality is they will have to find the money from somewhere to ensure that they have a properly resourced police service. Because if they don’t then I fear that the consequences are such that we will be sleepwalking into a catastrophic situation.”

We sit in his office overlooking the parade ground of the PSNI training centre in Garnerville, Belfast. Below are a few dozen police recruits wheeling into formation before a giant wall-embossed PSNI badge. It’s a scene unlikely to be repeated for a while. Recruitment of officers to the PSNI is currently on hold for next year. And with hundreds of officers leaving the force each year, a fall in officer numbers is considered inevitable.

It is one of numerous cost-cutting measures which Terry Spence claims could prise open gaps for violent dissident republicans to exploit. “The protective shield that the PSNI provides in ensuring that terrorists do not move easily across the entire UK… that will be compromised, and we’re deeply worried and concerned,” he said. However vulnerable or otherwise this ‘protective shield’ may be, there is little dispute surrounding the threat still posed by violent dissident republicans.

It’s true that the number of security-related deaths in Northern Ireland has reduced markedly over the last decade (from roughly four a year to one a year). Counter-terrorism measures have proved highly effective in that sense. So too have recent operations by the police and security services both in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. But dissident activity remains significant. Only this week, the PSNI warned the public there was a “strong possibility” terrorists would launch attacks in the run-up to Christmas.

According to the latest PSNI security assessment, in the last 12 months there have been 65 shooting incidents in Northern Ireland and 43 bombing incidents. Last month, an armoured police vehicle in Londonderry took a direct hit from a mortar.

In North Belfast on 18 November, a grenade struck a police Land Rover while officers were policing an Orange Order protest. A group calling itself the IRA claimed it was behind the attack, and released a statement pledging to increase its attacks on security forces, saying it will “continue to target them at a time of our choosing”. The attack was “as close as it gets to officers getting killed”, a senior PSNI figure remarked.

This is what the chief constable, George Hamilton (pictured above), refers to as a “post-conflict society still tackling terrorism”. He too is sounding the alarm. “We’ll prioritise resources to keep people safe,” he tells me repeatedly. But he declines to give a straight “no” to the question: will national security be jeopardised by these cuts? “National security is a very nebulous term,” he replies, offering more reassurances and then adding: “There’s no point in me pretending that £70m coming out of the budget will not have some effect on that. It will, but I am also determined that we will prioritise the resources that we have to keep people safe.”

While dealing with the ongoing threat from terrorism is an important part of the PSNI’s role, it also has other – more typical – policing responsibilities to deal with. Terry Spence, from the Police Federation of Northern Ireland, warned that the PSNI was in danger of becoming a “blue-light firefighting service, answering only 999 calls,” highlighting the likely cuts to community policing teams among other areas at risk.

Of course it’s in the interests of the police to raise their voices at a time when others are competing hard for public funds. But it’s rare for a chief constable to declare, as he did in October, that potential cuts were putting his force in a “virtually impossible position” and could leave it with “virtually no preventative capability”. Such comments, understandably, attracted a great deal of attention.

Exactly how much is coming out of the PSNI budget is not entirely clear at this stage. The current operating budget is approximately £700m. A funding crisis at the Northern Ireland executive has meant the force has had to cut an additional £38.4m before the end of this financial year. On top of that reduction (around 5 per cent of the PSNI budget), the Department for Justice announced this week that cuts of around 9 per cent are likely in 2015-16. The chief constable had prevously warned that cuts of between 10 and 15 per cent would mean a police service that was “unrecognisable”.

All of this is on top of previous cuts which has seen the force reduced from 8,500 officers nine years ago to 6,815 today. That headcount still compares extremely favourably with other UK forces. Northern Ireland has a police officer per 265 head of population compared with one for every 445 in England and Wales. Exactly how efficient or otherwise it is as an organisation is a matter of debate (one Northern Ireland newspaper recently asked: “They moan about cuts, but does the PSNI spend their time and resources wisely?”). But there is no question that, in terms of the UK, it operates in a unique environment.

Disputes over flags and parades, not to mention ongoing tensions at interface areas, continue to consume police resources. The long-running Twaddell Avenue protest (pictured above) illustrates that vividly. When the Orange Order was banned in July 2013 from parading along a road in North Belfast, some members decided to set up camp and stage a protest parade there every night. So the police were called in to enforce the ban. And have done so every single night for the last 16 months.

And because this is now almost a permanent fixture, the risk from dissident republicans targeting police lines (there was a grenade attack on them just last month) means even greater back-up is needed. We counted at least a dozen police Land Rovers assigned on the night we were there. It is costly. PSNI figures suggest this single dispute is costing the police £40,000 a night (alrhough the protesters dispute this), which would amount to a bill – to date – for policing this one protest of £13.5m.

When other disputes turn violent, there is also one other “public order” cost to take into account: injuries. According to the PSNI, 1,267 of the force’s 6,815 officers have been injured on duty so far this year.

Chief Constable George Hamilton has already outlined what he says the likely impact of the cuts will be. Among a raft of measures, he’s spoken of slower response times to non-emergencies; a reduction in overtime, leading to officers being pulled from other duties to deal with higher-priority incidents; cutting public opening hours in all but two of Northern Ireland’s police stations; axing temporary worker posts and reducing the number of police vehicles. In its own assessment of the impact of the 2015/16 budget, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice said this week the cuts “will have a severely detrimental impact on police presence, resilience and capacity”.

But arguably the most contentious budget announcement to date involves the effective closure of the PSNI’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET). The HET was set up in 2005 as a special investigative unit to re-examine the deaths of more than 3,000 people in Northern Ireland during the so-called Troubles. A massive undertaking, to put it mildly, and not immune from controversy. The unit, however, is now being replaced with a new “legacy investigations branch”. It will operate on a fraction of the HET budget and take much longer over its casework. The move has caused outrage in certain quarters.

Families of those killed by soldiers during the events of Bloody Sunday in Londonderry in 1972 have already launched judicial review proceedings in the wake of the cuts, which have led to the majority of the PSNI team investigating the case being laid off. Solicitor Peter Madden has said the chief constable had no right to “effectively end this multiple murder investigation”.

The chief constable says he is fully aware of the sensitivity of this issue but claims that he has been compelled, financially, to take these measures: “I know that the hurt from a lot of these legacy investigations is very real and it’s heartfelt and genuine for families who’ve been left behind who’ve lost loved ones. I understand that. But I have risks that we’re having to police for today, and that has to take priority over dealing with the historical investigations.” He goes on to say: “I didn’t actually ask for any of these cuts… but I have to work with the budget that I’m allocated.”

But it’s not just the PSNI scaling back on its historical enquiries. The office of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland – whose role includes investigating allegations of state collusion in Troubles-related killings – has also had to close posts. With a quarter of its historical enquiries team now gone, the ombudsman’s office recently wrote to families to apologise that their deadline for completing investigations had slipped from 2019 to 2025.

Niall Murphy, representing some of the families in these ombudsman cases, is another solicitor mounting a legal challenge. “It’s a disgrace and an insult that families are being issued with letters that their cases will not be looked at until 2025. The policy of deny, deny, deny has become a policy of delay, delay, delay in the hope that people will pass away, and that’s immoral,” he said.

“Any citizen that is afflicted by the conflict has a right [under the European Convention on Human Rights] to have their case investigated. That’s non-derogable. The state can’t wash its hands of that.” And the state, therefore, he argues, should be finding the money to make this happen. The chorus of those calling upon Westminster to view Northern Ireland differently in the tide of public sector cuts grows stronger.

George Hamilton is not the only senior policing figure to have gone public in recent times with somewhat portentous visions of a post-cuts policing landscape. Only last month, the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) warned that one in six of all police jobs across England and Wales could be lost in a new round of public spending cuts following the general election. Police forces in England and Wales could be facing a further minimum 20 per cent reduction in funding, Acpo’s President Sir Hugh Orde said. This could “potentially have serious implications for the safeguarding of the most vulnerable,” he added.

There is undoubtedly a mood within policing right now to campaign harder and louder over public spending cuts. Some will see this as mere tactical sabre-rattling to frighten politicians into wielding the knife a little less brutally. But it’s rare to find a chief constable, as in Northern Ireland, declaring publicly that this process could leave his force with “virtually no preventative capability”. And in a land where grappling with the past is still proving so challenging, where distrust of the police lingers deep in some communities, and where they’re still escorting judges to the dentist, warnings like this are perhaps difficult to ignore.

Channel 4 News