THE fear and trembling brought on by that massive PSNI leak has been loud and public, and perhaps with reason. The names of PSNI people, their places of work, the departments in which they worked – virtually all the stuff you’d not want to be made public was made public, excluding home addresses. Think of a fox’s nose appearing at the entrance to a henhouse and you’ll get something of the PSNI’s state of mind right now. Some police officers have spoken of emigrating, others of changing house, others of changing jobs. 

Let’s start with an obvious question: why so much consternation? That’s easy: because a fox is a threat to chickens and dissident republicans are a threat to PSNI lives. But supposing the threat of dissident republicans were removed? Well then it wouldn’t really matter what names and details were released. But the fact is that small numbers of dissident republicans can still create panic in the PSNI ranks. They shouldn’t. An effective police service would have infiltrated and dismantled such groups years ago. The roots of the present PSNI panic can be traced to deficiencies in the PSNI itself. 

But given that dissident republicans do remain a threat, how in God’s name did this massive leak occur? We’re told a Freedom of Information request was made and passed through three different departments before some dullard pressed the release button. That’s incompetence on an industrial scale. If you tried to gain access to your bank’s vault, you may be sure you’d have been confronted by three or more locks, all of which worked. You’d think something similar would obtain in terms of guarding the anonymity of PSNI people. Not so, it seems.

The British media have been full of stories about PSNI people keeping their job secret from friends and even their own family. Maybe that works for some, but not all. This stateen is a small place and its people are very nosy. "How are you today? And the wife and kids? Thank God the holidays are nearly over, you’d nearly be glad to get back to work, I swear, kids can drive you crazy. So where’s this you said you worked anyway?”  It’s hard to bat away such questions without arousing suspicions.

At the same time, for your colleagues to blow the identity safe open in this stupid way must be galling. Besides which fact, with more than 25 years elapsed since the Good Friday Agreement, you’d wonder at the calibre of an organisation which could be so stupid or careless, or maybe both.  

Among the identities exposed, we’re told, are those working with MI5. Apart from the danger they now face, they’ll be of little future use. You’re no longer working undercover if your cover has been blown and everyone knows who you are. MI5 will be forced to look for a fresh batch of spies.

A final point: Catholic police officers are said to be particularly concerned about this leak, given that they are seen as a prime target of dissident republicans. This gives the PSNI authorities and the media a chance to emphasise the rise in Catholics within its ranks – at last count they were showing at around 30 per cent of recruits. Yes, indeed, Virginia, much higher than it once was. But if the Catholic and Protestant communities in NEI are roughly the same size, that means the PSNI is falling some 20 per cent short in their recruitment of Catholics. Nor will this leak have encouraged potential recruits from that sector of NEI society.

Until central issues like these are addressed and solved, the leaking of sensitive data may be a massive problem, but it’s only one among many.