Ramming of Police Vehicles: South Armagh

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly am 1:00 pm ar 22 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP 1:00, 22 Ebrill 2024

I beg to move

That this Assembly condemns those who resort to ramming police vehicles in an attempt to evade criminal enforcement action, including arrest; believes it is reprehensible that 77 PSNI officers were injured as a result of their vehicles being deliberately rammed in 2023; notes with concern that this was a 50% increase on 2022; highlights that the spate of such attacks in south Armagh has coincided with far-reaching and politically-motivated policing reforms in the area; stresses the need to assess the impact of the roll-out of additional non-armoured and liveried vehicles in Slieve Gullion on local crime trends; further notes the impact that ramming incidents have on operational policing resources, including through sickness absence and rising repair bills; and calls on the Minister of Justice to consider stronger custodial sentencing for those who weaponise their vehicles to attack police officers; and further calls on the Minister of Justice to prioritise a visible and effective Police Service by bringing forward a fair and ambitious budget settlement for the PSNI in the next financial year.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. As an amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List, the Business Committee has agreed that 15 minutes will be added to the total time for the debate.

Keith, please open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board.

We welcome the opportunity to throw a spotlight on the actions of those who use their vehicles as weapons to target and attack police officers in south Armagh and throughout Northern Ireland. It is unacceptable that vehicles are weaponised against our emergency services. It is no exaggeration to say that the threat posed by those who turn their vehicles into weapons is as serious and real as that from those who discharge firearms or plant bombs.

Between 1 January 2021 and 29 March 2024, there were 127 deliberate collisions with PSNI vehicles across Northern Ireland, 29 of which were in the Newry, Mourne and Down district command unit. Due to the rise in the number of police cars being deliberately rammed in 2023, multiple officers suffered whiplash and neck and back injuries, and soaring bills for the repair or replacement of vehicles were incurred. The officers are resilient and dedicated; in most cases, they will be back to work and right in the thick of it within days. However, this question remains: is the PSNI doing enough to promote their safety at work?

In 2023, 45 police cars were deliberately rammed, compared with 34 the previous year. Of the 29 incidents in Newry, Mourne and Down between 1 January 2021 and 29 March 2024, 83% involved armoured vehicles, 38% targeted liveried vehicles and 10% involved soft-skin and liveried vehicles. In the 2023 calendar year, there were 42 deliberate collisions. Newry, Mourne and Down district recorded 24% of all deliberate collisions with PSNI vehicles. Some 30% of those involved armoured police vehicles.

Many of the incidents involved people trying to evade arrest for a range of offences, including driving with no insurance or drug possession. Specialist training for officers cannot diminish the risk to an individual officer when someone uses their vehicle as a weapon. Therefore, it should be for the PSNI and the Department of Justice to take a step back and ask themselves, "What can we do to change the culture that is driving those attitudes towards police enforcement? Can we increase the maximum sentencing?".

Newry, Mourne and Down had the highest number of recorded ramming incidents of any district, outside Belfast, in Northern Ireland, well in excess of the trend witnessed in other border counties and areas of Northern Ireland. In 2023, that represented around a quarter of such attacks on police officers. Those levels are disproportionately higher, given the population of the area.

When we compare the figures of assaults with injury on a constable with those of other areas in the UK, we see a stark difference. In 2022-23, there were 79 recorded incidents in Greater Manchester, 243 in Northumbria, 893 in the West Midlands, and yet the PSNI recorded 971 incidents. If you look at the figures of recorded incidents with and without injury, you see that the PSNI had 3,272 incidents compared with 1,625 in Greater Manchester, 792 in Northumbria, 2,475 in West Midlands and 2,030 in West Yorkshire. There is a problem, and there is a moral responsibility on all sides of the House to accept that. The evidence is undeniable.

There is no doubt that those acts in south Armagh have coincided with a sweeping set of reforms to policing in the area that were ushered in by the former Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, after a PR disaster during a visit to Crossmaglen. A number of the recommendations in that review are relevant to the debate. First, the reforms saw officers with years, if not decades, of experience being effectively cajoled into leaving south Armagh to make the policing complement more accommodating. Has that led to a less risk-averse and less informed approach to patrols? Has it increased the likelihood of less experienced officers being faced with more sensitive and challenging operational situations? Secondly, as a result of the review, 85% of the Slieve Gullion fleet is now liveried, and 100% liveried deployment is par for the course. Road safety operations, like vehicle checks, are now effectively publicised with signage. Has all that meant that police cars are a soft target for those seeking to evade the authorities? Thirdly, almost a third of the Slieve Gullion neighbourhood policing team (NPT) is now using soft-skinned or non-armoured vehicles, including four liveried 4x4-type vehicles. The review said that that would lead to increased road safety and pursuit capability, yet it turns out that that type of vehicle was the target of 30% of ramming attacks in south Armagh in 2022-23. Is that coincidental? How does that lower level of protection affect the severity of officers' injuries? Given that the review envisaged unmarked armoured vehicles still being used for specialist operations, has the introduction of soft-skinned cars effectively made routine patrols a target? Has the weekly patrolling strategy meeting taken account of the threat? How has that affected the time that it takes to get additional units to the scene of a deliberate ramming incident? Are officers at heightened risk?

There is an onus on the Minister of Justice to make it clear through tougher custodial sentences that there is no place for that type of reckless and cowardly behaviour. Those engaged in such activity in order to evade arrest must feel the full weight of the law. We have heard from the Minister about plans to enact sentencing reforms. It is time to see practical action and not just empty promises. We need to see an effective and appropriate deterrent for those who attack police officers and other emergency responders, regardless of what form that threat takes.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Member for giving way. I appreciate his support for the sentencing Bill. Does he agree that, had his party not collapsed the institutions, we might be looking at the sentencing Bill today rather than debating the motion?

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

Thank you for your input, Minister. We have now passed that. We cannot keep looking back at the past.

Photo of Keith Buchanan Keith Buchanan DUP

We are now back in the Chamber, so it is up to you to deliver that.

The amendment takes away from the motion and adds nothing to it, so we will not support it today.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

I beg to move the following amendment:

Leave out: "highlights that the spate of such attacks in south Armagh has coincided with far-reaching and politically-motivated policing reforms in the area;"

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

You will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind. All other Members will have five minutes.

Photo of Deirdre Hargey Deirdre Hargey Sinn Féin

Anyone who deliberately rams a police vehicle or assaults not only a police officer but any emergency service worker, be they police officers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, firemen or firewomen, commits a crime against those who are on the front line of protecting our communities. Such actions are unacceptable, and those responsible must face the full rigours of the justice system. However, such attacks cannot be used as a platform to justify or support any attempt to undermine an important policing initiative that was conceived in conjunction with the local community and sought to enhance engagement and cooperation while developing confidence levels and consent between the police and the local populace. Such an initiative came in the form of the south Armagh policing review. It was initiated in January 2020 over a six-month period by the then Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, and published in August 2021. It dealt with the policing arrangements in south Armagh. The terms of reference were wide-ranging and sought to:

"objectively assess the style, tone and accessibility of local policing and whether it was appropriately aligned to community expectations and need."

The review was conducted in the spirit of a partnership approach with the local community and its political representatives. I am sure that anyone who is interested in improving relationships and working practices between the Police Service and the local community will applaud that approach.

The review produced 50 recommendations, which sought to ensure that the:

"strategy, structure, systems and culture facilitate an increasingly visible, accessible, responsive policing model in South Armagh."

Such a model would be welcomed in all areas by all citizens who wish to see the delivery of a policing service in a constructive and inclusive partnership with the community at all levels.

I will give you an indication of the relevance of some of the key recommendations for the local community that were outlined in the review. One recommendation stated:

"An enhanced neighbourhood policing team should be established with increased hours of coverage to provide greater levels of visible policing and a dedicated focus on engagement."

Another recommendation was:

"to ensure that community impact considerations are central to planning and decision making processes at every stage"

— of policing activities.

In addition:

"All non-local resources carrying out policing activities in South Armagh should be accountable to local management for the style and tone of delivery and patrol profile."


"A cross border command and control protocol should be developed with a focus on the management of police pursuits."

To conclude, I quote from a statement made by Superintendent Norman Haslett, the district commander in the Newry, Mourne and Down area, which includes south Armagh, on 15 November last year:

"Since the publication of the South Armagh Policing Review in August 2021, we have made significant progress against the delivery of the review's recommendations, and, as a direct result, the visibility, accessibility and responsiveness of policing in the area has improved for all communities within the Slieve Gullion area. The health, safety, welfare and well-being of our officers and staff is a priority, and the criminal actions of a small number of people will not prevent us from delivering community policing".

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance 1:15, 22 Ebrill 2024

The motion calls us to attend to a pressing concern: the rise of police vehicle ramming incidents, particularly those resulting in injuries to officers. The statistics are alarming. We have already heard some statistics in the debate. Last year, 77 police officers were injured as a result of their vehicle being deliberately rammed. That is a significant increase on the previous year. The escalation cannot and should not be overlooked.

While the Alliance Party supports the motion and the amendment, it is crucial to highlight some of the shortcomings. First, the motion directs much of its content and concern towards south Armagh, suggesting a regional focus that fails to address the full scale of the issue. Let us be clear: it is not an isolated problem confined to one part of the country. Across Northern Ireland from Derry to Down, Fermanagh to Antrim our officers face similar threats. It is a Northern Ireland-wide issue that demands a response on the same scale. Let us be clear: it is not just a Northern Ireland issue. In the past few days, police cars were rammed in Wigan, West Yorkshire — where there have been 58 incidents in the past year — and in Liverpool. In Mid Devon, a 100 mph police chase resulted in a police car being rammed. In Blackpool, a driver went on a rampage, damaging police vehicles and injuring police officers. The issue is not unique to Northern Ireland.

Furthermore, while the motion calls for an ambitious budget settlement for the PSNI, it genuinely neglects to negotiate with the true custodians of the purse strings: not the Minister of Justice but the Department of Finance. The Department of Finance is ultimately responsible for the policing budget. Over the past few years, the PSNI's budget has been slashed by hundreds of millions of pounds, leading to a situation in which, due to those cuts, services may hardly be recognisable to the public. Thus, while the debate is valid and necessary, it barely scratches the surface of the problem.

There is a call for harsher penalties for those who endanger our officers. I commend the work of the Justice Minister — my party leader — on her intention to introduce new provisions for emergency and front-line workers, enhancing the maximum sentences for attacks on police officers, ambulance staff or firefighters. It is truly unacceptable for those serving and protecting our communities to be subjected to abuse and attack. Our courts must be empowered to impose more severe sanctions, as the Justice Minister said at Question Time on 11 March. Beyond this, we need a strategic, well-funded plan. In the past 12 years, the budget for Health was increased by 70%, Education by 45% and Justice by a mere 3%. We genuinely wait to see what the new Budget will provide for the Department of Justice.

Police officers still serve as the initial response in the absence of other failing services and can sometimes spend entire shifts in A&E, engaging in duties that are beyond their remit and for which they have not had the proper training. We have heard about the resultant stress that has led to a significant number of officers taking leave, sometimes bearing the physical or emotional scars of their experiences. Those individuals are whom we depend on to protect our communities. Public sentiment will sour if those services are severely underfunded and will take decades to recover. I place it on record that the Alliance Party recognises the efforts of our police officers, who daily face the complexities of maintaining safety in even more demanding conditions. They are the individuals who run towards danger when everyone else runs away. They are never off duty, even when they are off duty. Attacks on them have no place in our society.

As we consider these pressing concerns, let us move forward not just with the intent to condemn but with the financial commitment to make change. Let us ensure that our police officers have not only our support but the resources necessary to confront and overcome the challenges. We have come a long way from policing the troubles of the past. Today, we face new and different challenges in policing our communities.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

The proposers of the motion and the amendment referred to the south Armagh policing review. From memory, the main recommendation was with regard to Crossmaglen PSNI station. I just note — I do not think that it is a declaration — that I am a former member of the Policing Board and was so at the time of the review's publication.

For a bit of context, I think about the places where I have worked in my professional career: Broadcasting House, the BBC's base in Belfast; Havelock House, UTV's base; Windsor House, with the Victims' Commission; and, of course, 13 years here in Parliament Buildings. All were comfortable places to work; in fact, this one — Parliament Buildings — is surely one of the most privileged workplaces in the whole country. I visited Crossmaglen PSNI station some months ago. My goodness, it is like a reverse Tardis. It is a lot smaller inside than it looks from the outside. The corridors are so narrow that you have to turn sideways if you are passing somebody coming the other way. There is no natural light. Until recently, officers went in on a shift pattern that saw them there for four days and three nights, resulting in an annual overtime bill for that one station of £1 million. In the context of the PSNI's hard-pressed budget, that surely was not sustainable and was reflective of a different time. Part of the reform proposed by the south Armagh policing review seemed to me to say to police officers, whom, for most of my adult life, we have asked to police in the most demanding and dangerous of conditions and to often work from police stations that are the exact opposite of the luxury of Parliament Buildings and this estate, that it was time to move on and to give police officers working conditions that are much more appropriate.

As Mr Buchanan said, it all seems to go back to Christmas 2019, when the then Chief Constable, Simon Byrne, was photographed outside the police station with four officers, two of whom were carrying the most frightening-looking automatic rifles with huge sights on them. As Mr Buchanan said, it was "a PR disaster". I took the police at face value when they told us on the Policing Board that that was what prompted the review, because senior officers realised, having looked at that photograph and the controversy that surrounded it, "My goodness, we have not really reviewed how we police in south Armagh in the way we should have, given the changing circumstances post-ceasefire". I have a bit of a difficulty with the assertions that what happened was "politically motivated".

That said, my party will not support the Sinn Féin amendment, and here is why.

If political interference in policing is going to be talked about, let us remind ourselves of what happened on foot of the terrible incident on the Ormeau Road during COVID, when there was the annual commemoration of those who were brutally murdered at Sean Graham's bookmaker's. On 8 February 2021, Declan Kearney of Sinn Féin, in an article in 'An Phoblacht', made clear that the party's support for the PSNI:

"has been consistent and constructive. But it has also been conditional".

It was also conditional.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

The Member refers to the lack of political motivation or otherwise. Does he remember that, at the presentation to the board, some political parties were not consulted to the degree to which others were? For that reason, many of us believed that there was a political motivation and direction of travel in that report.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Member for his point. I am not entirely clear in my memory of that, but I accept that the DUP has included it in its motion. I am just saying that I take at face value what the police have said about what motivated the desire to bring on what we call the south Armagh policing review.

I will conclude by saying that of course we support the motion. Weaponising vehicles to attack police officers is entirely wrong. It seems that the way forward here is for the Policing Board — the main scrutiny body of the PSNI — to take a view about soft-skinned and liveried vehicles. It is my recollection that police use pushbikes in Crossmaglen, which opens them up to certain dangers. We are in a post-ceasefire environment, so is it not great that we have moved away from having a fleet that is exclusively armoured to having soft-skinned and liveried vehicles? It is a more normalised form of transport for policing, but it has attendant dangers. I certainly join, I think, everybody in the House in condemning anybody who rams a police vehicle and puts a police officer at risk.

We will support the motion but not the amendment.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the motion. It gives us the opportunity to discuss the massively important issue of the policing budget and the need to ensure that it is fair and ambitious. The motion also gives us an opportunity to condemn attacks on police and to put on record our support for, and solidarity with, those officers who have been injured and their colleagues, who risk attack, assault, injury and even worse every single day and night. I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board. My position on that board has given me a greater insight into the many and massive challenges facing the PSNI, financially and operationally.

I absolutely support the motion's call for the Minister of Justice to prioritise a visible and effective Police Service but feel that the ask should be of the Executive. Other Ministers, not just the Justice Minister, need to understand the importance of an adequately resourced Police Service to our society and to measure up to the declared words of the motion, and, indeed, to go beyond its words. The motion and the motion as amended, as it will be, are limited in ambition, focusing on the next financial year, without reference to the deeper structural funding deficits facing the PSNI.

We tabled an amendment seeking, as a matter of further priority, to begin to address the structural underfunding of the PSNI that has arisen over time and has also been detailed by the Chief Constable on more than one occasion. What does that underfunding look like? The Office for National Statistics (ONS) says that, since 2010, PSNI funding has increased in real terms by 3%. Over the same time, health funding has increased by 89% and education funding by 23%. The first nine points on the pay scale for new PSNI officers, in a comparison with new police entrants across these islands, are between £2,000 and £10,000 per annum. The in-year PSNI deficit is £130 million, which could rise to £300 million with data leak and holiday pay claims. We then look at an issue that Mike Nesbitt previously raised: the impact of the mental health crisis on the PSNI and how stretched it has become in responding to help vulnerable people — protect people — rather than to fight crime.

The impact of those pressures is felt by not just the police but the public. Police numbers fall way short of where they should be, recruitment has been an issue for some time, and retention is becoming more of an issue. Policing is extremely challenging at the best of times, but fighting crime and protecting people become a lot more difficult when resources are stretched so thin. An impact on performance is inevitable, and that is manna from heaven for those who do not want an effective police service: criminals and paramilitaries who seek to strengthen their stranglehold on communities.

Crime, sadly, exists everywhere, and everyone should be able to depend on a police service — not a police force — to protect them. Some of those who are opposed to the police, such as dissident republican groups, want to drag us all back to the dark days of the past. They want to play on — prey on — people's memories of the RUC as a protagonist in the conflict and to portray the PSNI as imperial crown forces against whom they defend their community. Some of those republicans are up to their neck in criminality.

The best outcomes are achieved through policing with, rather than of, the community. For the motion to describe the demilitarisation of policing in south Armagh as politically motivated is itself politically motivated. For that reason, we support the amendment. The ramming of police vehicles is reprehensible. It risks the lives of not just officers but all road users. We support calls for those who are responsible for it to face the full rigours of the law, but we need the cooperation of the community to maximise the chances of perpetrators being prosecuted. We still have a long way to go on that, particularly in areas where cooperation with the police was so actively discouraged for so many years.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin 1:30, 22 Ebrill 2024

It is extremely concerning to see any incident of police cars being rammed, and that must be treated as seriously as is appropriate for such a serious matter. As we know, and as Members have said, in a number of cases, it has caused serious injury to officers who were working on the ground to protect our communities. As Mark Durkan mentioned, on many occasions, the police officers on the ground are working with people who have mental ill health. They are protecting very vulnerable people.

The reason for our amendment is that the increase in incidents in south Armagh is lower than that in other areas in the North. That is supported by the PSNI's figures. One ramming incident is one too many, and we need to be clear that that is not acceptable anywhere across the North. The PSNI has been clear in reports to the Policing Board at every level that the changes under the south Armagh policing review have had an extremely positive impact on policing with the community. That has had good outcomes for PSNI officers and for the community.

Members of the Policing Board — I am sorry; I should have declared an interest as a member of the Policing Board — visited Crossmaglen and Newtownhamilton PSNI stations. We spoke to the district commander and to the community officers who work in those stations. It was helpful that Mike Nesbitt outlined the conditions in Crossmaglen barracks, because they are inhumane. Nobody should be working in those conditions in this day and age, and certainly not in the shift patterns that police officers were working. I do not know how they could work in those conditions in those shift patterns and be mentally well; that is a credit to anybody who did so. It is important to note that the officers and the district commander were clear with all of us that the changes to policing under the south Armagh review have been positive. For that reason, I ask all in the Chamber to support the amendment as well as the motion.

Photo of Cheryl Brownlee Cheryl Brownlee DUP

I declare an interest as a member of the Policing Board.

Those serving in the Police Service of Northern Ireland are at the very forefront of public protection, putting their lives on the line to maintain public safety and to hold accountable those who break the law. They are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brothers, sisters and friends; they are just like you and I. We get up every morning and go to work safe in the knowledge that we have those dedicated men and women working 24/7 to ensure that we can go about our daily lives safely. Our police officers, however, do not enjoy the same luxury. They know that, when they put on that uniform, they are putting themselves in harm's way. They take a huge risk when they patrol, on our behalf, each and every day operating under consistent terrorist threat.

We have already heard some of the figures today, but a 32% rise in the deliberate ramming of police vehicles in 2023 should alarm every one of us. Aside from the obvious financial burden that that places on the public purse, the more pressing and important issue is, of course, the impact that it has on the officers who are involved in those incidents. The policing world takes over both the professional and personal lives of officers. Police officers have suffered whiplash and neck and back injuries, with the most recent only a matter of weeks ago when two officers required hospital treatment. Let us be clear: those who deliberately ram police vehicles in an attempt to flee arrest are weaponising their vehicle and must be treated as severely as those who bring firearms or bombs on to our streets.

There is an onus on the leadership of the PSNI and, indeed, the Minister of Justice to ensure that the issue is taken seriously. During Question Time back in March, I asked the Minister to detail what her Department will do to address the shocking number of attacks on PSNI officers and other front-line emergency service personnel. While, of course, I was pleased to get confirmation that it will be a key element in the new sentencing Bill, we all need to see action, and I trust the Minister to do everything in her power to action that at pace.

While the financial implications of the attacks pale into insignificance compared to the safety and well-being of our officers, it is important to note the significant impact that they have on our public finances. We already have the lowest police numbers in the PSNI's history. I am sure that every Member here will be aware of how stretched our police resources are in their areas. Attacks like these can be devastating for local policing provision, with officers injured or unavailable for duty, vehicles spending time out of service and the significant costs of getting vehicles fixed or their having to be scrapped altogether. That adds a further burden to resources that are already stretched beyond breaking point.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Does the Member recognise why those resources are so stretched or, indeed, why we have such low numbers of police officers? Does she accept and take any responsibility for her party's two-year absence from the Assembly Chamber, which could have made stronger arguments to the Government in relation to those budgets?

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The Member has an extra minute.

Photo of Cheryl Brownlee Cheryl Brownlee DUP

Thank you to the Member for his point. I know that the point was made earlier. We have not shied away from the Government's package. We know that we need more resources in Northern Ireland to deliver vital public services, and we have not shied away from that.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

It is interesting to follow on from the previous intervention, which talked about that, and now you are talking about the money. The party of the Member who made the intervention wanted to go back to Stormont much sooner and without a financial package. If it were not for our party securing the additional finances, this place would not —


I am sorry that you feel like that, because you were the rigorous implementers at the time. You can laugh and cajole all you like.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Mr Clarke, thank you for your remarks, but address your remarks through the Chair, please. Thank you.

Photo of Cheryl Brownlee Cheryl Brownlee DUP

If the PSNI is in a situation where it cannot recruit, we have to make sure that we look after the officers we already have. Far too often, we focus on the human rights of those who break the law. We have to make sure that we focus on those who uphold it. It is long overdue that Members had an opportunity to promote the safety and well-being of our officers.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

As another recently serving member of the Policing Board, I am acutely aware of the incidents addressed in the motion and the effect that ramming police vehicles has on the community, the PSNI as a whole and, especially, the individual police officers involved and their families. Those sinister acts accomplish nothing except the spread of fear in communities and the direction of destruction and injury towards police.

The PSNI has the complete and unwavering support of Alliance in its efforts to safeguard our communities. Officers constantly put themselves in harm's way to achieve that goal for the public good, and they have our utmost respect and gratitude.

Those who use vehicles as weapons to attack the police are trying to take us back to a time of violence and division. That is not what the majority of people in Northern Ireland want, and all of us know that. Whilst it is essential to recognise the seriousness of ramming police vehicles in south Armagh, it is crucial to not overlook the fact — it is an absolute fact — that such incidents are happening all over Northern Ireland. The records show that clearly. My colleague Stewart Dickson has referred to that, and even though I do not wish to simply repeat his points, the focus has to be on the spread of the problem and the threat that stems from that problem.

Furthermore, I must draw on Policing Board experience, again, to express unease at how the motion references policing reform in an area that needs positive and proactive neighbourhood policing as much as anywhere else in Northern Ireland. There is that local need, but, apart from that, those who saw the working conditions of officers in Crossmaglen prior to the report on reform, which were referenced by Mr Nesbitt, fully understand the need for change. As Policing Board members, we saw those conditions. That change, in addition to necessary improvements in infrastructure, must also include an effort to engage the community in a policing model that is consistent with that in other areas across this region. In any case, those are operational matters and are the responsibility of the Chief Constable and outwith the control of the Justice Minister for reasons that we all know and, frankly, should all understand.

The motion makes relevant reference to the need for satisfactory budget provision for policing. The Minister has referred to that often, and I am sure she will do so again. I hope that she has the support of the Assembly and the Executive in making the provision for policing, the wider justice family and the public that is required. It is political will that is required to deliver a settlement that is fit for the provision of justice and public safety in the 21st century, with all of its changes and challenges.

Action must be taken if we are to lower the very worrying statistics referred to in the motion in relation to attacks on police. It is imperative that those who cause damage to property and pose a threat to human life are held accountable for their actions. To ensure that justice is served, it is also vital to implement stricter sentencing guidelines that reflect the severity of the harm that these people inflict. The Minister has already stated her intention to introduce new provisions to protect front-line and emergency service responders. That is another area on which she will absolutely depend on the support of the House and Executive colleagues for delivery. That is why we are supporting the motion and the amendment, despite our reservations on some of the terminology and geographical references in them.

I reiterate the absolute need for the declared intention of the motion to be accompanied by the delivery of budgetary support to provide for and protect the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the public that it serves.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

I declare an interest as a pending member of the Northern Ireland Policing Board. The use of vehicles, usually stolen or unregistered, to ram police vehicles to escape arrest, is a relatively new phenomenon in Northern Ireland. It appears to be a difficult criminal tactic to deal with in rural locations, especially those close to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is disturbing and totally unacceptable that 77 officers were injured in such incidents in 2023. It can only be a matter of time until we are dealing with a fatality, someone receiving serious and life-changing injuries, or even multiple such outcomes as a result of a single ramming incident.

The problem is that such crimes are sometimes downgraded to mere motoring offences. The reality is that a car in the wrong hands is a dangerous weapon that can easily cause death and life-changing injuries. Sentences must reflect that reality.

I certainly encourage the Minister of Justice to review sentencing guidelines and make the sentencing for this heinous and life-threatening crime fit the crime. It is a crime for which police officers are not equipped to defend themselves in the way that they can when other methods of violence are inflicted on them. If policing is to be truly normalised, it must become obvious to those who have ill intent towards police officers that a slap on the wrist will not be the price that they will pay. While we try to normalise policing, it is vital that we continue to offer the proper protection that officers need in each circumstance. The Ulster Unionist Party supports police officers and all front-line workers being fully protected by the law as they go about serving us in stressful situations, and we certainly condemn all attacks on those public servants.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 1:45, 22 Ebrill 2024

Whom exactly are the DUP advocating on behalf of today? I know that it is not advocating on behalf of the people of south Armagh, who will be outraged that the DUP is singling out our community on an issue that exists across the North. The DUP mover of the motion himself referenced 127 incidents across the North. On 5 February 2024, two officers were injured when a car was rammed in Omagh. On 24 August 2023, three officers were injured when a car was rammed in Belfast.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

He does not want to know.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

On 25 April 2020, in Dungiven, a police car was written off when it was rammed. I could go on and on. I strongly —


Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I am sorry: excuse me for one second. We should not be getting remarks from other Benches. The Member should be able to speak and make his comments clearly without interruption from a sedentary position. You should know better than that.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

I strongly condemn such incidents, and my best wishes go out to our brave police officers who have been injured in the line of duty.

I know that the DUP is not advocating on behalf of the police, who have repeatedly stated that policing reform in south Armagh has been and will be beneficial for the community, for its officers and for the quality of policing across the board. I know that the DUP is not advocating on behalf of the emergency services and first responders: if it were, it would be tabling credible proposals to address the issue in all parts of the North, for the fire, police and ambulance services.

Singling out south Armagh on a problem that evidently exists everywhere in the North is wrong. To be blunt, I say that the DUP is serving itself. Let us call the motion out for what it is: nakedly sectarian, ill guided and self-serving. If the DUP had any decency, it would withdraw this nonsense motion and sit down with us, who want to see safer communities, instead of playing dog-whistle politics and whipping up sectarian tensions.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

When we debate something such as this, my thoughts go to the family of Constable Philippa Reynolds, who, 11 years ago, died in an horrendous incident when the vehicle in which she was travelling was rammed. Sadly, things have been getting worse. I listened to Mr Buchanan recite the statistics, and they were not only chilling but very striking in what they convey about the upturn, which, by virtue of the sheer scale from 2022 to 2023, cannot be coincidental. That is a pretty inescapable inference from the rise in the number of incidents. Whether Mr McNulty likes it or not, the fact that south Armagh heads the league table with Londonderry and west Belfast speaks a message. Yet, there are some who want to hide away from that. It is a bit like hiding away in an overcrowded toilet where a murder takes place.

It really is incumbent on us all to face the realities, and, if, as seems indisputable, the upsurge in south Armagh coincides with the liberalisation of the presentation of the police in that area, that too needs to be faced. However, running away from it is the standard approach, instead of addressing and reassessing that approach. If you have a situation where the number of liveried vehicles suddenly increases and the number of soft vehicles suddenly increases and, at the same time, the number of ramming incidents equally increases, frankly, the conclusion is pretty inescapable. It really is burying our heads in the sand to say, "How dare you suggest it is something to do with the south Armagh policing review?", when the coincidence of time and effect is dramatically writ large in front of us. I support the motion, and I oppose the excusing amendment. I trust that that will be the will of the House, although I doubt it.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I am grateful to the Members for South Antrim, Mid Ulster, East Antrim and Newry and Armagh for bringing the issue to the House for discussion. I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. Such cowardly and reckless attacks on police officers who are working in our community to keep others safe are totally reprehensible, and I condemn them without hesitation. That reckless behaviour puts police officers and members of the public at risk of serious harm, and it is only by God's grace that no one has been killed. I cannot even begin to imagine how frightening it is for officers to be involved in that type of incident or the impact that it has on them and their families, physically and mentally.

It has been just over 11 years since the appalling incident in which young police officer Philippa Reynolds lost her life, when the police vehicle that she was travelling in was hit by a stolen car in Derry/Londonderry as she went about her job of keeping people safe in the community in which she served. Such a tragic waste of a young life in sad and reckless circumstances should not be forgotten, nor should it be overlooked. The incident in which Philippa lost her life and the continued prevalence of ramming incidents across Northern Ireland should serve as a reminder to everyone of the courageous service that the PSNI performs for all of us. I take the opportunity to give thanks and gratitude to it for all that it does to keep people safe.

The motion covers a range of issues, and I am sure that Members who are here today, particularly those who tabled the motion, three of whom are serving political members of the Policing Board, will appreciate that there are matters in the motion that I cannot stray into, as they are operational policing matters in south Armagh. Indeed, I cannot stray into critique or debate of decisions that the Chief Constable made. It is also worth mentioning that, on the basis of the data and information that the PSNI provided to me in advance of the debate, there are no obvious trends in date, time and location with the incidents. Whilst the numbers are still quite small, each attack is incredibly serious, so we need to be cautious when we discuss the issues and show sensitivity in how we talk about them.

I am happy, however, to address the issues that fall under my remit as Justice Minister. First, with respect to sentencing, I assure Members that I take assaults on police officers extremely seriously. Attacks on police officers and, indeed, on any public servant are totally unacceptable. Everyone deserves to be able to carry out their duties without fear of attack or reprisal, and those who carry out such attacks should feel the full force of the law being brought down on them. In the case of those who are in the emergency services, it not only endangers the responder but those in the community who are relying on their assistance in an emergency situation. That is why I intend to introduce new legislation in this mandate to reform the law on sentencing by increasing the maximum sentence in the Magistrates' Court for such attacks and by making serious assaults on front-line workers a statutory aggravating factor. It is important to acknowledge that the actual sentence imposed in individual cases is entirely a matter for the independent judiciary, which deals with each case and has heard all the evidence presented in court. The sentencing exercise is complex, and it is unique to every case. A judge must carefully consider all factors related to that case along with any sentencing guidance — the responsibility of the court, not the Department — and sentencing principles before coming to a final determination.

Currently, a number of offences can be charged for attacks on police officers, and I want to outline them. The offence of assaulting a police officer carries a maximum sentence of six months' imprisonment in the Magistrates' Court or two years if tried in the Crown Court. More serious assaults against police can be charged using other offences found in the Offences against the Person Act. They include assault occasioning actual bodily harm, with a maximum sentence of seven years, and intentionally causing grievous bodily harm, for which an offender may receive up to a life sentence.

The new offence that I intend to introduce is that of assault on front-line workers, with a higher 12-month sentence in the Magistrates' Court and two years in the Crown Court. For more serious assaults, I intend to introduce a statutory aggravating factor for offences where the victim was a front-line worker, meaning that the court will have to specifically recognise those attacks and increase the sentence accordingly. I plan to introduce those new provisions in a sentencing Bill to be introduced next year.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

I welcome some of the comments that you have made on sentencing, but I listened to the contribution of a Member who said that many of the offences were downgraded to motoring offences. Is there anything in your provision to prevent them from being downgraded to motoring offences as opposed to what they actually are, namely a direct attack on the security forces?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Conscious of time, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will return to that very point, potentially after Question Time, because I note that that was the next thing that I was going to raise.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Thank you very much indeed, Minister. As Question Time begins at 2.00 pm, I suggest that the Assembly take its ease until then. The debate will continue after Question Time, when the Minister will resume her remarks.

The debate stood suspended.

(Mr Speaker in the Chair)