The PSNI Chief Constable has refused to confirm if an investigation is underway into former Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams and claims of his involvement in the IRA – which the veteran republican has repeatedly denied.
He also revealed he has not asked for a current assessment on the IRA’s status, considering it is not immediately relevent.
During a wide-ranging interview with broadcaster Stephen Nolan on his BBC Radio Ulster show on Tuesday, October 8, Mr Byrne was quizzed on the activities of the UVF, dissident republicans, bonfires, flags, drug dealing, Brexit, speeding and his determination to increase officer numbers. He was also asked about the loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson.
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Gerry Adams has been repeatedly accused of being a member of the IRA. A major BBC Spotlight documentary last month aired claims from a former member of the IRA’s army council that Mr Adams was at one stage its chairman.
In May he told the Ballymurphy inquest: “I was not a member of the IRA, I have never disassociated myself with the IRA, and I never will, until the day I die.”
Police chief Byrne refused to be drawn on the allegations levelled at the former West Belfast MP and current Louth TD and if they were subject to investigation. He said it was for “others to follow the evidence”.
Referring to the ongoing independent investigation, Operation Kenova by former chief constable Jon Boutcher, he said he did not want to speculate while it was working.
Mr Boutcher is investigating the activities of the Army’s top ranking IRA agent Stakeknife.
On his predecessor George Hamilton’s 2015 assessment structures of the Provisional IRA still existed but the group was not involved in terrorism, Mr Byrne said he did not know the current status of the terror group and had no information suggesting the four-year-old assessment had changed.
Mr Byrne said he had regular briefings on threats from terrorist groups and their influence
“That conversation has not led me down a route to believe the PIRA exists in the way you say,” he said referring to the assessment conducted after the killing of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast.
Asked if he recognised if there was a “war” in Northern Ireland during the Troubles he said those involved in killing police or the public were “criminals”.
Turning to the UVF Mr Byrne said it was not an organisation “in conflict” but it still exerted influence in communities.
“We need to make sure the legitimate power and control in communities is with the police,” he said.
On the Avoniel bonfire which saw contractors named and threatened and the council end attempts to have the structure removed from its property amid claims the UVF would orchestrate violence, Mr Byrne said the matter should have been dealt with earlier.
“There was a whole range of intelligence at the time that really told me that two weeks before The Open [golf championship], did we want to get ‘played’ and drawn into a conflict on bringing down a load of pallets.”
He said there was elements of the UVF involved but it was not specific to them.
“Had we gone in heavy handed we could have foreseen conflict and it was about seeing the bigger picture in relation to one incident that could have led to copy cat violence right across NI.
“The means did not justify the ends.”
He said his message to all paramilitaries was “we are coming” and he would use every power available to dismantle their criminal networks.
On his comments on taking children off paramilitaries – which saw him referred to as a “child catcher” – he said his comments had been blown out of proportion.
He said a sound bite got ahead of him but his message remained they were committed to tacking paramilitary crime and they had safeguarding procedures in terms of protecting children which would continue.
He added: “It is one of the big questions on people’s lips. How small numbers of people exert power, influence and control and ‘punish’ people in their communities for drug dealing and and to show some form of perverted legitimacy.
“We can’t tolerate that.”
He said it was one of the reasons behind his call for more police officers.
Mr Nolan asked the police chief about Jamie Bryson on his tweets of tensions in the loyalist community over Brexit.
Mr Byrne said he had not met him but was aware of his “strong presence on social media”.
He said he did not follow him but he was “clearly someone who could whip up sentiment like a number of influencers right across the UK and we keep an eye on that”.
On Brexit and on policing border customs centres – which he said his officers won’t do as a routine – he said there will be occasions police would have to be called in on a case-by-case basis.
He admitted he was in the dark on arrangements after October 31, when the Prime Minister has said the UK will leave the EU.
“It is about being ready for Brexit and actually operating within the law and carrying out the duties and responsibilities we are paid to do.
“We have to adapt what we do in terms of our presence and out policing style.”
Asked about the dissident threat in the shadows of Brexit, he said they had planned for a whole range of different scenarios.
“Clearly anything that looks like the state exercising control on that community could be at risk of attack,” he said.
“We are in that space, whatever your views, Brexit seems to be rally fast paced and dynamic and my job is to not interfere in what government is doing in terms of its own preparedness and negotiations.
“We are here to give advice about security context for policing NI and respond to what effectively becomes the outcome.
“It feels a bit last minute, I get that, but at the end of the day we have to deal with reality.”
He said the threat posed by Brexit was the “million dollar question” and he could anticipate threats from dissidents and also a backlash from loyalist communities if jobs and agriculture was put at risk.
“At the moment our assessment is about a slow time change and we are working closely with the Republic and other agencies and it is about how we police NI to respect that changing threat.”
He said there remained a severe threat from dissident republicans but there was no intelligence to suggest there was a change in the “tempo of attack planning” against the state or police.
He said they worked with communities and other agencies to “keep one step ahead” of the terrorists.
On a loyalist threat he said protest could be anticipated from that community but at the moment there was no “emotion” or change in community relations but they had to continue to monitor it.
He said he was aware of how important identity was in Northern Ireland. He said many of the things that cause trouble in NI was about “winners and losers”.
“We have to look at that issue from that lens and see how people view changes.”
Asked about organised crime he said there was around 90 organised crime groups involved in the illicit drugs trade.
He said they varied in size, had links across the UK and into Europe and there were times they overlapped with paramilitary groupings and both communities
He said if there was a drift toward calls for a united Ireland it was a political matter and not one for the police.
Asked if he was proud to be British he said he was “proud to be from the UK” and also had Irish heritage, which was one of the reasons he took the job.
Mr Byrne again confirmed his officers would continue to take part in gay Pride events.
Acknowledging some would see the event had a political purpose, his view was it was about respecting the identity of communities right across Northern Ireland.
“If we are to do a good job we need to have the confidence of gay and lesbian community as well to help us do that.
“To me it is a celebration of identity and not politics and also to demonstrate we will tackle hate crime which effects this community in a different way.”
He said he did not think Northern Ireland policing was “close” to being ready to end the practice of officers routinely carrying guns but conversations had begun on more officers carrying Taser stun guns.
On his personal life he admitted he liked steam trains and the Belfast giants, asked about his faith he did not want to comment saying it would be seen in terms of “winners and losers”.
He said he had no regrets on taking the job and had been made very welcome in the job in the 100 days since he took up the post.
He was asked what the most daring thing he had done in his time was he admitted to taking a short cut in a school cross-country run which taught him the difference between right and wrong when he got caught out.
With many thanks to the: Belfast Telegraph and Jonathan Byrne for the original story