The data breach at the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has seen the personal details of all serving officers and just under 2,500 civilian staff accidentally released as part of a response to a Freedom of Information request, is the sort of grotesque, IT foul-up normally reserved for the realms of satire like The Thick of It.
There is a slim chance that any officers in the Province will be laughing. The attempted murder of DCI John Caldwell in front of his young son in Fermanagh earlier this year underlined acutely that dissident republicans hellbent on killing police officers ‘haven’t gone away you know’, to quote Gerry Adams.
In the excellent series of books, A Force Like No Other, Colin Breen, a former officer with the PSNI’s predecessor force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, sets out through a series of interviews with former colleagues the strange facts of life facing a police officer in Northern Ireland. Checking under cars, rarely socialising and lying about your profession were and remain the norm.
That abundance of caution has been fundamentally undermined, with obvious ramifications for the safety of officers. Officers in rural areas, those based in places in Northern Ireland where the forces of the Crown are viewed in a dim light such as Londonderry, and Catholic officers who have had to tread carefully in their community as a result of their employment have been put in particular danger.
This leak is undoubtedly the most serious security failing in the history of policing in Northern Ireland since the 2002 break-in by the IRA at the force’s Castlereagh holding centre; during that episode, the codenames of informers working inside both republican and loyalist terrorist groups were stolen.