Pushing Back Regressive Policing

Fourthwrite Summer 2009
It quickly became Kafkaesque. At the first hearing the public, press, myself and my lawyers were cleared from the court so that the PSNI could present their arguments in camera. How could we mount a defence when we didn’t even know what police were saying? We were fighting a case from a massively disadvantaged position – Suzanne Breen

The recent judicial attempt to clip the wings of Ian Paisley Jnr is to be seen in the context of an instinctual urge by the state to erode the ground underpinning the logic of protecting sources which allow vital information to enter the public arena. It should simultaneously remind people of the importance of the victory achieved by Suzanne Breen in a Belfast court and warn them of the temptation to rest on the laurels of the Breen achievement. Although it was the first time since the Terrorism Act of 2000 that the protection of sources has been judicially approved and enshrined, nothing should be taken for granted. When Suzanne Breen wrote after the verdict in her own case, declaring it a triumph for press freedom across Europe, it can hardly be said she was exaggerating. However, while she forced the PSNI to pull its horns in and desist from goring a vital principle of journalism, the state has clearly not thrown in the towel, referring instead to use it as a gag to suffocate Ian Paisley Jnr.

Suzanne Breen was up against it from the get go. As she reported ‘the police were said to be absolutely confident they’d win.’ They had good reason to. The precedent favouring journalists on the issue of protecting sources was set almost a decade earlier in the case of Ed Moloney who, like Breen, was also Northern editor of the Sunday Tribune. The state felt less assured and steady on its feet then. It was walking on eggshells and was vulnerable to exposure. A murder its own people had been involved in through collusion with loyalist militias had not been solved and the one person facing prison in relation to it was the journalist who had brought to light many of the unsavoury aspects of the case. At the time there still existed a serious swathe of opinion willing to challenge the British policing regime.

Breen by contrast was protecting a source in the deeply unpopular Real IRA, and in the eyes of many people would be unable to elicit little in the way of popular support for her stand. As in the days when the Provisional IRA was at war with the British state there remains a deep hostility within the ranks of officialdom toward any voices from within armed bodies opposed to the state. The Real IRA unlike the Provisionals is a body with little support in the nationalist community and the PSNI must have felt they were pushing a door being opened in advance of their arrival by those previously most critical of the force.

In some areas the PSNI had been involved in more serious violations of human rights than had been when operating under its old RUC name; the detention of people in custody for up to 28 days a case in point. Yet there was little in the way of opposition from the political parties to the force’s behaviour. It hardly expected a serious challenge to its latest encroachment and could even claim to have been given the green light for the move by the comments of the Deputy First Minister who lambasted ‘dissident journalists.’

However propitious the conditions as viewed by the police their reading was one neither shared nor acquiesced in by Breen’s colleagues in the journalistic profession, nor by those in the wider anti censorship community. Despite the green light they were determined to hold up a very large ‘stop’ sign; so large that it was visible to more people than the PSNI imagined existed.

A vigorous campaign in defence of the targeted journalist was launched. It cut right across the political divide, drawing the support of many people, some of whom are more used to signing bits of paper against each other rather than signing the same bit in unity against the PSNI accumulation of powers. Commenting on the sense of purpose within the journalistic community and the strength of its opposition to the PSNI assault on media freedom the beleaguered Sunday Tribune journalist explained: ‘for the first time in a source protection case, a range of eminent journalists would be called to give evidence and defend our profession’s principles and practices.’ More than 5000 signatures were gathered for a ‘We’re Backing Suzanne’ petition which was carried in the paper of which she is Northern editor.

From a human rights perspective the ruling against the PSNI by Judge Tom Burgess was heartening in that it underpinned the claim by Breen that the police should not be allowed to display a wanton disregard for the lives of its citizens by putting them at risk from armed militias. When the moment the case was initiated it was felt by many that if Breen were to win it would be on these grounds. However, Judge Burgess went much further and acknowledged the journalistic issues at the heart of the case. The court not only ruled in favour of Breen’s human rights but also in favour of her as a journalist who unflinchingly insisted on the profession’s need to protect sources if a function as vital to society as policing itself was not to be rendered dysfunctional.

John Ware a prominent journalist with Panorama said ‘there is meant to be progressive policing in Northern Ireland. If this is progressive policing I’d hate to see what regressive policing would be like.’ The state of political affairs in the North today is such that citizens there must rely on the journalistic profession and anti-censorship community to push back the encroaching boundaries of regressive policing and not the politicians.


  1. 'policing' during the 'reign of the Provie's' often took the form of 6 inch nails and 6-packs....surely we are in a much better place now (if even only on a 'civil administration' level)??? I think that 'policing' at a community level should not be politicized ....maybe??? The point was always made that even so-called 'top-republicans' had to make their way to the 'cop-shop' if they needed police reports for insurance claims on stolen cars,etc....

  2. nothing funny to say about this piece Anthony, real scary shit,and I fear there may be worse to come yet.Marty F,p,s.,mind you I saw a picture in a brit fort once and I kinda stole the image as my own, it showed a wee mouse looking skyward and a huge evil looking eagle with outstretched talons was about to snatch the wee fella and what was the wee mouse doing yip he was giving the eagle a defiant two finger salute.

  3. Not overly familiar with Suzanne Breen but the impression I get from this case with the RIRA source is that her position reminded me a little of the Patsy Mc Cardle [journalist] one with the Provos.."this is Patsy Mc Cardle for Downtown Radio in S.Armagh somewhere near the border-and there's a big bomb just gone off,or it will do any second." I think this is what was getting on the PSNI goat. Also the RIRA being infiltrated to the hilt and a conduit for the syphoning off of any 'crazies' and a weaning ground for hanger on touts, they may fear for the exposure of their assets to other 'assets' lol AGAIN
    What's more is whilst the protection of journalists is extremely necessary the sensationalism type journalism of her articles [ I was shopping when my mobile rang and a man said he was from the RIRA and ...bla bla bla.]are seen as maybe being overly favourable to the RIRA rather than totally objective. What we really need is decent policing and human rights in the North. To this end it's crucial that she was defended to the hilt in the interests of curbing PSNI excesses[they need no excuse] and journalistic freedoms. But the papers and t.v. are hardly full of the 28 days detention or outrage at the Duffy case where one moment he was being released through lack of evidence after two weeks detention and the next he was being charged. There's ample evidence we still have a Lurgan PSNI detective unit in 2009 who are basicaly UVF men on a salary. Not a peep out of journalists or SF on this. No historical investigation or expose reporting here!!
    I realise that Duffy is as popular politically and topically as a turd in an industrial bread mix-however that's the battleground where the human rights and policing issues need to be challenged. Not on the right of an attractive prominent journalist to be well enough informed/sourced to be able to take phone calls from 'terrorists' while getting her crusty bread+tights on the way home from the office.
    What happened to all the human rights and pressure groups who would highlight these issues? Are all journalists now so neutered that a programe like spotlight or panarama can't take a look at the police activity and ethical conduct? Or are people guilty by media attention depending on who they are or percieved to be? Maybe journalist ethics and human rights apply only to journalists?
    Come in Westie, we need a SF that if determined to be engaged in N Ireland community politics fully needs to be an honest broker between the PSNI and the nationalists. Not a case of if you can't beat them JOIN THEM. There's no need to be a supporter of militant Republicanism in order to forcefully refute the right of the PSNI to do as it wishes. It's progression we need not another surrender...or has that practice set in right across the board outside of personal, political or professional interests?

  4. Progressive Policing is pure doublespeak,in my experience! All policing winds up to be regressive even with the best of intentions.

  5. Just read your piece in Republican News-want you to know that I think it beyond reason to classify you as a felon and these 600 barbarians as ?????

  6. Anthony: Please consider and critique this analysis. In most cultures the police are of the particular culture-neither more nor less progressive than it is,except that their job is to enforce law which makes them most often in conflict with the people with whom they come in contact. The northeastern six counties of Eire have a significant part of their culture which considers it valid to physically attack the other part based on a belief in the basic inferiority of that other part. A third party, Britain, believes that they are superior to both and chooses the police leadership. So, only if one agrees to the British presumption of ultimate superiority, could one assume that the police might be more progressive than the general culture,and further only if one believes that the leadership can ultimately control the rank and file of the police. Otherwise the police will only reflect the culture that they are of. Tell me whether I'm learning or still missing the point,please.

  7. Doc: With respect,just finished your book and Moloney's,"Paisley". Up to speed now,thank you for your patience. Even the Pigs have a pecking order,eh? Best

  8. Larry

    Just catchn up with the site after a week or two. Busy man!

    Policing is a very difficult issue in general (not just in Ireland), and like most things that are difficult and complex, it takes a while to change.

    I personally think that Policing has changed in the North, I think Patton got that ball rolling and whilst I totally agree that it is far from perfect, I believe that the devolution of policing and justice will bring about further change for the better, but only through time.

    let's be honest, the old RUC was a loyalist/unionist legal paramilitary force that took great delight in turning every day policing into an attack on anything that resembled nationalism, let alone republicanism. I don't see it as such today. I have been at a couple of DPP meeytings and the local commanding ranks get challenged on anything of interest and concern to the local community - and have been forced to put in place monitoring and feedback mechanisms so that there is evidence about their progress or lack of it on these issues.

    On the bigger picture, SF did raise the issue of detention at the time of the Duffy arrest but not surprisingly, didn't go out on a limb for him as an individual, as they would have done a few years earlier. But that is the reality of the change in paths that both parties have chosen - SF are for improving and normalising policing on a continuous basis - having already commenced but with lots more to be done - whilst those who still pursue the armed conflict would like to kill as many as possible as they simply see them as many of us once would have viewed the RUC.

    I don't share that view and hope I feel even stronger in that belief as time moves ahead.



  9. Westie: Unless the Eastern Six are on the moon,policing is not nearly so complex as one might think. Mostly the same people aspire to be coppers everywhere. I've known some subversives to sneak in successfully,but in general, the police are the enforcers of real power in any culture,from tribal to modern. Unless one believes that real power there will "devolve"---that would be Great Britain, not Sinn Fein,nor the DUP--today and yesterday. The joining of opposites is intended to hoodwink us all, there as well as here!!

  10. Uilodomhnaill

    Agree that policing throws up the same problems and issues the world over, but I'm not really too interested in the world over to be honest. Call me insular or parochial or many other things but I can only go on experience of the past and concern for the future in Ireland.

    What we all experienced in the North during the seventies and eighties was anyhing but policing - it was onslaught and assault on a daily basis in Republican/Nationalist areas, and it was never a case of the odd bad apple - it was a planned and deliberate strategy, and I'd say the RUC's deeds alone influenced many a young man to join the Provisional Movement during those years.

    Again, I will say, from my perspective, I think it is changing and, hopefully will continue to do so. We're not talking about utopia here where people will like the peelers, it's about getting to the stage where you don't look at them and think, 'UVF or UDA'? Of course. we all want it to be an all Ireland police situation, but this is the the shorter term objective.



  11. Westie: Your last comment shows that you are hardly insular,from my point of view. You have it exact that police deficits are seldom if ever the odd bad apple. Police, like prisons are social organizations which are extremely purposeful and can be interpreted as the will of the most powerful element in which ever culture they are functioning in. The greatest danger in them both, in my estimation, is that they will become political tools,rather than well trained and disciplined legal tools. Your comment about the make up of the provisional IRA may well be what I found so very confusing in trying to learn about this most recent chapter in Irish history. I was basically looking at the IRA from the perspective of its founding ideals,and not just an ad hoc reactionary/angry organization of reform. By reading Moloney's two wonderful books and Dr. McIntrye's, I have been able to more clearly see how much more like the US young angry "New Left" it was than like the historical IRA. Thank you for your honest response. My goal is historical understanding.