Following the promises made at the time of the Hillsborough Agreement about securing proper financial resources before the devolution of policing and justice, it must come as a surprise that severe cuts are already being required of the PSNI. The Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, warned that the police service could only make minimum cuts to its budget despite requests made by the Justice Department for more severe restrictions. The demand for cuts could not come at a worse time, as the security threat from so called ‘dissident republicans’ is at its highest in Northern Ireland since the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
The priority must be to confront the resurgence of terrorism in Northern Ireland. Terrorist activities have intensified over the last year and it is feared that a tragedy like that of Omagh in 1998, when 29 people were killed, could be repeated. Its is the State’s duty to protect its citizens and particularly to ensure that their right to life is effectively secured within its jurisdiction. Adequate funding is vital in order to allow the United Kingdom to fulfil its commitment regarding the protection of the right to life under the European Convention on Human Rights.
However it must be remembered that at the time the Hillsborough Agreement was negotiated, only six months ago, the issue relating to the funding of the PSNI was apparently resolved. The Agreement includes, on page 10, a copy of the letter addressed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, the First Minister and deputy First Minister. Under the title “Additional Financial Settlement – Letter from the Prime Minister dated 21 October ” a financial package appears to have been agreed.
The Prime Minister stated “together we have, I believe, achieved an outcome in which we each have confidence and which will ensure that when policing and justice powers are transferred, the Northern Ireland Justice Department will have a secure financial foundation which we all recognise is important in ensuring confidence in the policing and justice services across the community”.
Among the key elements of the settlement mentioned were included:
· Access by the Northern Ireland Executive to the reserve to meet any exceptional security pressure relating to policing and justice. HM Treasury was prepared to make available up to an additional £37.4 million in 2010/11.
· A further £12 million was provided to ensure that the needs of additional pressure for legal aid and other court expenses were covered. If the pressure was to turn out to be higher than this, HM Treasury was to provide further money from the reserve up to a maximum of £39 million. The access to the reserve was not to be recouped from future EYF until the end of 2012/13.
The letter concluded: “I believe that this is a very strong settlement which will ensure that all the people of Northern Ireland continue to have high quality policing and justice services”.
In view of the Hillsborough Agreement and the letter from the Prime Minister, why should the Chief Constable been asked to consider the possibility of cuts in the PSNI budget? What has happened to the British Government’s promises and the “strong settlement” agreed with Gordon Brown?
Indeed Mr Baggott has to confront the possibility of a budget reduction of as much as 8%. This represents £1 million a week over the next four years, a total loss of between £147 million and £224 million over the same period of time. It would mean a reduction of one thousand police officers and would not permit the PSNI to fulfil its duty in the interest of the public.
Due to the threat from the resurgence of home-grown terrorism in Northern Ireland, it is necessary that the number of police officers in the province be not not less than 7,500. The PSNI report, recently communicated to the Department of Justice, states: “It remains the professional opinion of the Chief Constable and senior command team that the PSNI requires sufficient funding for the equivalent of 7,500 regular officers and 2701 police support staff, as agreed in 2009”. The Chief Constable appears to have consented to cuts of 2.5%, but even these cuts are in breach of the settlement reached at the time of the Hillsborough Agreement, which sets the conditions for the devolution of policing and justice to take place.
If proper funding is not provided, the safety of the public and indeed of police officers themselves would not be satisfactorily guaranteed. It remains the paramount duty of the State to do all it possibly can to ensure that the fundamental right to life of its citizens is respected. With the safety of the public at stake, the PSNI cannot suffer the imposition of such cuts at this particular time. On the contrary, the allocation of sustained and increased resources should be maintained, as was agreed at Hillsborough.
If appropriate funding is not provided, it is quite possible that the United Kingdom authorities could be accused of acting in breach of the right to life if ever UK citizens who should and could have been protected suffer injuries or loss of life as a result of terrorist attacks.