Cate McCurry, PA
The PSNI chief constable said he has not seen any corroboration of a heightened threat of violence and disorder from loyalist paramilitaries, as he appealed to people to “calm the rhetoric”.
Simon Byrne told a meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board that there were evidently “tensions and palpable frustration” within loyalism over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But he added that police do not foresee “imminent capacity and capability” of loyalists to carry out any of the attacks that have been recently reported.
Last week, an umbrella group representing loyalist paramilitary groups wrote a letter to unionist politicians urging them to make clear that Irish Government ministers are not welcome in Northern Ireland.
There has been loyalist anger about the prospect of UK/Irish joint authority if devolution is not restored at Stormont but the move has been played down by both governments.
Mr Byrne told the meeting that the PSNI is aware of the recent letter sent to political leaders by the Loyalist Communities Council and media speculation about current activities and future intent of loyalist paramilitaries.
“Whilst there are evidently tensions and palpable frustration within loyalism over the Northern Ireland Protocol we have not to date seen any corroboration of a heightened threat of violence and disorder from loyalist paramilitaries,” Mr Byrne added.
“We are far from complacent on this and will continue to remain vigilant working closely with our partners and the wider community to proactively monitor community sentiment, tensions, and the capability and intent of proscribed organisations.”
Mr Byrne said its assessment of threats from loyalism is short term because of political instability and the tension around the protocol.
“You would expect us to use all sorts of lawful means, including a lot of quiet work in communities, to assess what is going on and what is behind the rhetoric,” he added.
“Inevitably because of some of the narrative that flows from it, we have looked at the letters to see if criminality flows from what is in them. We would say not on legal advice.
“We want to make sure that the assets at our disposal are being used to their fullest intent to make sure we have got full sight of a planned campaign, if that’s what people are intent on doing, but equally giving reassurances to communities and make sure we are not talking up the rhetoric ourselves.
“We don’t assess in the short term any imminent capacity and capability to carry out some of the planned attacks that have been talked about in the media.”
Referring to a bomb scare that forced the evacuation of an event which the Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney was addressing earlier this year, Mr Byrne said police can never have full knowledge of everything.
Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said the contents of the loyalist letter was “unhelpful and unnecessary”.
Alliance MLA John Blair said: “Statements which include the words ‘ceasefire review’ and ‘dire consequences’ create tension in our communities and as well as that they make people feel intimidated.”
Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly queried how the PSNI came to its conclusion about the letter.
Mr Byrne said police will assess the gap between what is being said and what “we see as the likelihood of it happening”.
Mr Kelly also raised the ongoing investigation into social media posts threatening public figures in Northern Ireland, including Queen’s University academic Colin Harvey.
“Some of the threats are calling for him to be beheaded. This is the same stuff that happened before Pat Finucane was assassinated by a number of loyalists and that’s what worries me about this,” Mr Kelly told the meeting.
“What is being done to individuals who are vulnerable, that they can be assessed and given protection, which I think they deserve?”
Mr Byrne said they will assess the evidence on social media and offer crime prevention advice if needed.
Assistant Chief Constable for Local Policing Bobby Singleton said he has twice met a group of “concerned individuals” since February.
“We do take it extremely seriously because of the historic issues we have had around human rights advocates and academics being subject to target and attack,” Mr Singleton added.
“I have appointed a superintendent to review the material they have brought forward that was of concern to them and appointed an inspector to oversee material.
“I expect there to be developments in the coming days and weeks.”