Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr also told Holyrood’s policing sub-committee on Monday that Police Scotland was spending a “significant amount of time understanding” the Northern Ireland protocol.
The EU Withdrawal Agreement created an “invisible” border between Great Britain and the island of Ireland in the Irish Sea, in a bid to ensure there was no physical border between northern and southern parts of Ireland, which would have breached the Good Friday Agreement.
However, it does mean goods exported into Northern Ireland now have to meet customs checks. As a result, there has been growing opposition to the protocol among loyalist groups, which claim it “undermines the union”.
Tensions were further heightened over the European Commission’s hastily reversed plan to trigger Article 16 of the protocol over the export of Covid vaccines to the UK from Northern Ireland, which saw the temporary removal of some staff at Belfast and Larne ports amid concerns for their safety.
Asked by MSPs about the impact of the Withdrawal Bill on Police Scotland since it came into force in January, DCC Kerr said: “There are ongoing concerns that we are spending a significant amount of time understanding and keeping an eye on the Northern Ireland protocol.”
He added: “There have been a number of issues of staff being removed from ports in Belfast and the response of the loyalist community in Northern Ireland and that’s something we haven’t seen play out yet on the west coast of Scotland, but we’re keeping an close eye on it and we’re in contact with the police service of Northern Ireland”.
DCC Kerr also said while “significant arrangements” had been made prior to Brexit with the Northern Ireland police for “mutual aid” if officers had to be sent to Northern Ireland, that “threat had diminished significantly”.
He said: “Mutual aid this year is more likely to be characterised by mutual aid assets coming to support Scotland and Police Scotland, not least for the COP26 event at the end of the year where we’re bringing thousands of additional mutual aid officers, both general public order and specialist officers, to support us in November.”
MSPs also heard the Covid pandemic was potentially “masking” violations such as people trafficking.
DCC Kerr said: “People trafficking is a critical point and organised crime has developed over the past five years where they are more interested in people-based commodities. Drugs you can sell once and make a profit – a vulnerable person can be trafficked and repeatedly exploited and they make repeated money from them and that causes us significant concern about the movement of vulnerable people across borders and within Scotland.”
DCC Kerr also said despite mitigation measures, withdrawing from Europol as a result of Brexit would lead to “slower and more bureaucratic” relations with police forces abroad despite retaining access as a third party for liaison. “But we're not a member of Europol now so we lose a sense of influence and a voice,” he said.