Unmanned Barricades

It is now ten years since the RUC saw its name changed to PSNI. The evocative partitionist sign the body emblazoned on its old premises seems to have been wilfully chosen for the purpose of letting everyone know who was boss. It no longer even had ‘Ulster’ in the title, three counties of which sit outside British control. The name changed but the essence was retained. The PSNI would continue to be the British police force purpose built to police that area of Ireland ruled by Britain. Its restructuring reflected the power disparity between Irish republicanism and the British State enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. When Martin McGuinness boasted that Sinn Fein would put manners on the PSNI he might as well have promised to march on Madrid and crown himself King of Spain. It was simply never within his gift. He did not have the power.

On the tenth anniversary of the name change Matt Baggott the British police chief currently running the PSNI, could be found trumpeting the force’s success and the prospects of it becoming the finest police service in the world within a decade. Typical hyperbole that the public has come to expect from the inflated egos that populate the Northern political scene and who make it commonplace to brazenly tell the world of the greatest peace makers ever, the greatest police force ever, and who do not feel remotely awkward at placing their grievances in the same bracket as those in civil war Beirut and the Warsaw Ghetto.

Baggott also indicated his willingness to attend the next Sinn Fein ard fheis scheduled for Killarney. The bible bashing cop said ‘I am really trying to find ways to take personal policing into the heart of areas where people have doubt. Attending the Sinn Fein ard fheis is one way we could do that.’ Yet the PSNI is about much more than the benign phrase ‘personal policing’ would lend itself to believe. What Baggott is pushing is very much a political policing agenda and there appears to be very little in the way of resistance.

The erstwhile radical Sinn Fein, long having abandoned its revolutionary posturing, while not rejecting Baggott’s ard fheis idea outright, is seemingly all at sea because even by the party’s own reformist standards, Baggott’s force is a serious disappointment. The party has been left looking rather red in the face as it surveys the creature it breathed life into implement a raft of repressive activities aimed at undermining civil liberties and strengthening the power of the state against citizens. There has been a batch of police incursions into the territory of the legal profession, academia, journalism, and citizen journalism/social networking. On top of that there is the use of supergrass evidence in juryless courts. Combined, these measures amount to nothing less than serious reversions in the sphere of policing.

Gerry Kelly indicated his party’s sense of having been exposed on these matters in his comments that:

Matt Baggott's credibility rating among the nationalist community is fairly low at the minute. His willingness to attend a Sinn Fein ard fheis sometime next year will not resolve that, nor should it be allowed to distract from significant issues which he has yet to adequately address.

Deflecting blame onto Baggott for what Sinn Fein helped bring into play is an attempt to mask the party’s own culpability. It more than any other entity ushered the current policing structure into the commanding position  from which it could, relatively unassailed, launch its battery of assaults on civil liberties. Ten years since the police change of name, there is a whole lot more in need of change but which remains much as before, or in some cases has even regressed.  Sinn Fein has ensured the transfusion of nationalist legitimacy into the arm of a British police force. The PSNI leader in Derry, Chief Superintendant Stephen Martin acknowledged as much in saying 'Sinn Fein had a huge impact on nationalist acceptance of police.'

In doing so the party has left nationalists and wider society without adequate safeguards. For in its haste to suck the truncheon, Sinn Fein overlooked even the most elementary of protection measures. Northern society’s immunity system has been left deficient in response to the virus of political policing. 

Sinn Fein’s problem with policing seems to be largely related to the manner in which the PSNI handles past incidents. In terms of current policing the party’s complaint is in the area of riot control and ‘the continued and unacceptable use of lethal plastic bullets.’ That barely scratches the surface of what is wrong with the PSNI even from a reformist perspective.

It now seems fairly clear that the PSNI is intent on prosecuting its strategy of attrition on behalf of the British State against Northern Irish civil society. It will erode civil liberties while simultaneously strengthening its own coercive power, enabling it to burrow into society and weaken those bodies that serve to hold state power to account and protect society against malign encroachment from the state. And unlike the days when it was called the RUC, few are rushing to man the political barricades that might help block it.


  1. Good piece, Mackers. You know my views on policing so I will not bore you with long winded comments. Suffice to say that for me the PSNI is the RUC with the rough edges sanded down and polished off in order to appeal to a greater number of people from both tradition. If you hail from a middle class background with a university degree and want a job 'serving the community' then the new police service is the ticket: add to this membership of a GAA club, fluency in the old native tounge up to fainne glas level and Bob's your uncle.

    Believe me when I say, I see no evidence of new codes of conduct nor any commitment to human rights whenever I am stopped and put through the mill. It is the political policing of old.

  2. The checks and balances which were put in place to hold the new force to account have failed to do the job they were set us to do. On the one hand, the DPPs are merely talking shops which exist to give the appearance of local accountability whilst, on the other hand, the Ombudsman was the subject of a highly critical public report exposing its lack of independence.

    Under Patten the Baggott has complete operational control and all matters pertaining to 'national security' are the sole concern of British MI5; again with little or no checks or balances. The more these shortcomings are exposed the greater Sinn Fein's embarrassment at their glaring failure to secure an acceptable threshold.


  4. I hope this doesn’t post more than twice! Having a problem with Google! I concur with Alec, an excellent piece. I thought I had ran out of vomit until I seen McGuinness on tv the other night urging young nationalists to become screws! (I’m dry retching now). After Robinsons hissy fit I thought to myself: “I don’t care if they have tricolours on their hats and shoulders”, if they are locking up, abusing, harassing and brutalising Republican prisoners, they are Bastards! To paraphrase Alec: if they are middle class, have a fainne glas and are members of a GAA club, then Robert’s your aunties husband.