Said the Bishop, bowing lowly, "Land and sea, my lord, are thine."
Canute turned towards the ocean—"Back!" he said, "thou foaming brine.”
"From the sacred shore I stand on, I command thee to retreat;
Venture not, thou stormy rebel, to approach thy master's seat:
Ocean, be thou still! I bid thee come not nearer to my feet!"
But the sullen ocean answered with a louder, deeper roar,
And the rapid waves drew nearer, falling sounding on the shore;
Back the Keeper and the Bishop, back the king and courtiers bore.
From the poem King Canute by William Makepeace Thackery
A week ago today North Belfast staged another act in the long running feature Aggressive PSNI Behaviour. Catholic politician Gerry Kelly was - if not literally manhandled – certainly jeephandled by the PSNI. The dangerous manner in which the force ignored his commands rather than paying him no attention per se is what made the scenes so reminiscent of images from 2000 when the RUC beat him around the head during a baton attack as he protested against an Orange march. The same year saw him handcuffed and assaulted by the cops during a Tour of the North event.
On Friday the same force, rebranded as the PSNI, policing nationalists to facilitate another triumphalist Tour of the North, once again treated Kelly with violent contempt as he made a stand in defence of political policing, i.e. his right to decide who will or will not be arrested. His performance as he tried to put manners on the police by ordering back the waves of cop vehicles was no more successful than that of King Canute before him when he too had stood arms akimbo shouting ‘halt’ at the ocean waves. Canute at least appeared to appreciate the limitations of his power.
The writer Malachi O’ Doherty has noted that:
What is even more amazing is that, in making a show of himself like this, he has actually upstaged the story his party wanted told, of how the Tour of the North parade behaved passing St Patrick’s Church.
While correct, there is more to it than this. Friday’s snapshot on its own reveals less than it does when situated in a context of an aggregated assault on understandings, not necessarily codified but tangible all the same, reached between the British and the supposedly great team of Sinn Fein negotiators. Like the promise of a an inquiry into the State assisted assassination of Pat Finucane and the letters of immunity handed out confetti-style to people like John Downey, they are not worth the paper they were written on.
Taken in isolation Friday’s incident looked at under the political microscope superbly illustrates the crystallisation of the power imbalance between Sinn Fein and the British police. The politically impotent Kelly was literally swatted away by a potent force of armed PSNI members.
There is absolutely nothing that is strange about the behaviour of the PSNI. In Weberian language the British state monopolises the use of legitimate force which it exercises routinely although not exclusively through the PSNI. The PSNI application of British force in turn has been legitimised by the stance of the party Gerry Kelly belongs to. If you endorse the power of the police to arrest your constituents then don’t feign shock when they do just that.
Mock horror, if not an expression if impotent rage, is just for the optics, a matter of keeping up appearances with the voters in the community from which the arrested youth was seized. The incident is revealing not for the arrest but the contempt with which Kelly was treated.
Looking at Gerry Kelly I felt I could as easily have been gazing at one time Belfast City councillor Seamus Lynch of the Workers Party back in the day. Lynch may have stolen the march on Kelly by about thirty years but apart from the time lag and the not insignificant matter of Lynch’s politics being considerably more to the left than Kelly’s, there is no appreciable difference between the reformist perspective of either man.
Sinn Fein might well complain but it is reaping what it sews. It forwent a transformative stance toward policing in favour of a reformist perspective. The template had already been patented by the Sticks and Sinn Fein was fully aware of it. What exists today is not a republican outcome to policing but a British state outcome. The changes incorporated merely mean that the British state has a force fit for British state purpose.
Even with that Sinn Fein did not have to fare so poorly. Within the reformist paradigm there is a continuum from left to right. Reforms can be more progressive or less so. Sinn Fein has opted to take up a minimalist position on reform. The party did not settle up on the policing question as a means to making right policing wrongs. It did so to fast track its way into northern micro ministries and prepare the ground for a strong bounce, failed as it turned out, in the 2007 Southern general election.
Gerry Kelly must seriously be asking himself about the type of change that was promised and supposedly ushered in under the new broom PSNI. Old wine, newly bottled has done little to improve the taste. It’s as bitter as it was under the old label. As an erstwhile revolutionary icon, he must at times wonder how he ended up in this situation. Does he ever pinch himself in a bid to snap out of it? Or is it simply affirmation of the old adage that the man who stands for nothing falls for everything?