This week marks fifteen years since the Patten Commission released its report and recommendations on the future of policing in Northern Ireland on 9 September 1999. Until 1998 four essential features distinguished the Royal Ulster Constabulary from police forces elsewhere in the United Kingdom. (cfr. G.Ellison & J.Smyth (2000), The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland, London : Pluto Press) First, its job of 'ordinary' policing was subordinate to the tasks of counter-insurgency. Secondly it was not seen as representative of the population as a whole as nationalists were significantly under-represented and the force suffered from legitimacy deficit and a lack of trust amongst that section of the population. Thirdly there were questions as to how accountable the force was. People have found it extremely difficult to secure protection and redress in the courts against police excesses. A remarkable feature about their lack of success is that the abuses have been high profile, substantial in volume and severity and sustained in frequency over the years. There have been no successful civil actions against officers in respect of these practices. (D. Walsh, The Royal Ulster Constabulary: A Law unto Themselves? in M. Tomlinson, T. Carley, C McCullagh, Whose Law and Order? Aspect of crime and Social Control in Irish Society, Belfast: Sociological Association of Ireland, 1988, pp.92-108) Fourthly, the RUC operated in a particularly dangerous environment with officers being targeted on and off-duty. Even in areas remote from counter-insurgency such as child abuse and domestic violence the police had not been able to intervene in the same way as their counterparts might in the rest of the UK as a result of the abnormal nature of the six counties. (cfr. P.M. Garrett (1999)The pretence of normality: intra-family violence and the response of state agencies in Northern Ireland, Critical Social Policy, 19:1, 31-55) As a result of the Patten recommendations for a new departure in policing, the new Police Service of Northern Ireland came into being on 4 November 2001. Fifteen years after Patten, to what extent has policing in Northern Ireland been transformed?
In terms of composition, if in 1998 there were 8.3% of Catholics in the RUC, thanks to 50-50 recruitment there were 30.4% of nationalists in the PSNI by the end of 2012. But a university study has emphasized that these were not typical or representative of their community. (Cfr: M. Gethins, Catholic Police Officers in Northern Ireland : Voices Out of Silence, Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2011) Moreover, amongst those who resigned from the PSNI between 2001 and 2011, there were 56.2% of Catholics compared to 39.4% Protestants. The proportion of Catholics in the prisons in Northern Ireland is twice that within the PSNI. Trust in the police force remains lower amongst the Catholic population (72%) than amongst the Protestant population (81%) and is lower than elsewhere in the United Kingdom. (P. Nolan (2012), Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report Number One, Belfast: Community Relations Council, 8 and 59) The issue of how representative of the overall population the PSNI is thus not entirely settled.
Due to the 'security situation', during the 1980s there were 8.4 members of the security forces for every one thousand people in Northern Ireland; this compared to 1.6 in France for example. (J. Tonge, Northern Ireland, Cambridge: Polity Press., 2006, 71) Despite the 'end of the conflict', Northern Ireland remains heavily policed. At the end of 2013 there were 6860 police officers in the six counties, which represent one officer for every 265 people; whereas in the rest of the UK the proportion is one officer for every 436 people and in the twenty six counties one for every 344 people. This despite crime rates being lower in the six counties than elsewhere in the UK and the twenty six counties. (P. Nolan (2014), Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report Number Three, Belfast : Community Relations Council, 45) Whereas police forces elsewhere in the British isles are not usually armed, the PSNI remains militarised. Police stations are fortified and PSNI officers move around in PANGOLIN land rovers and since December 2007 constantly wear bullet-proof jackets. Officers are issued with the latest Glock 17 and Heckler & Koch. The degree to which counter-insurgency tasks predominate over 'ordinary' policing can be measured by the proportion of its budget devoted to 'security costs'. Stormont justice minister David Ford said in February that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) devotes 32% of its total budget to dealing with the security situation. Its allocation for the financial year 2014 is £791 million. “Security costs were defined as those unique costs incurred by the PSNI, over and above normal policing costs, as a direct result of the specific security situation in Northern Ireland now or in the past.” (Third of police budget spent tackling terrorism, parades and disorder, The Newsletter, 24 February 2014) It is unlikely that any other police forces elsewhere in the UK spend such a large proportion of their budget on 'security' costs.
While a Police Ombudsman has been set up to investigate complaints against the PSNI, its credibility was heavily damaged by a report published in 2011 criticizing the extent to which it is effectively independent. Traditionally, complaints against the police have been explained in terms of a few 'bad apples' rather than a structural problem. (G. Ellison and J. Smyth, Bad Apples or Rotten Barrell?: Policing in Northern Ireland, in O. Marenin (ed) Policing change, changing police : international perspectives, London : Garland, 1996)
For example, between 1976 and 1980 there were 1690 complaints of assault in RUC custody:
There is a considerable body of evidence which suggests that the pressure on the police to break the rules does not stem from the personality characteristics of the policeman but is located within the organisation of policing. The pressures generating physical assaults during questioning tend to be developed in response to the perceived seriousness of the problem and often decisions concerning particular responses are taken at a very high level. ... In a chart noting the number of complaints it is clear that there was a tendency for complaints to increase when political pressure was exerteed on the police to produce results. - (P Hillyard, Law and Order, in J. Darby (ed), Northern Ireland: The Background to the conflict, Belfast: Appletree press, 1983, 50-51)
Subsequent revelations years later confirmed the validity of that assertion. (cfr. I. Cobain, Inside Castlereagh: 'We got confessions by torture', The Guardian, 11 October 2010) Nothing indicates that the PSNI is immune to similar pressures.
District Policing Partneships have been set up to encourage the idea that the PSNI is accountable to the public. However the PSNI has the right to refuse commenting on issues it regards as 'sensitive', which indicates that its accountability remains limited. Moreover, on 25 February 2005 the British government decreed that from 10 October 2007 in certain matters the role of the PSNI will be entirely subordinated to national security bodies like MI5 which themselves are not accountable to the public.
Early critics had already pointed that Patten's proposed regulating mechanisms gave insufficient attention to the role of the state and the vested interests within policing and concluded that the overall outcome is that the Patten Commission has been effectively policed and Northern Ireland has been left with a traditional, largely undemocratic and unaccountable model of policing with most of the control resting with the Secretary of State and the Chief Constable. (cfr. P.Hillyard & M Tomlinson (2000), Patterns of Policing and Policing Patten, Journal of Law and Society, 27:3, 394-415) There is also the whole issue of closed material procedures that also indicates a lack of accountability. (D. Holder (2013), Police accountability, the Irish peace process, and the continuing challenge of secrecy, Race and Class, 54 : 3, 77-86)
The irony is that according to its title, the PSNI is a 'service'. The police is not a service like the BT customer service department, but a force ; whose role is to en-force the law. Since its very inception, Northern Ireland has been governed by emergency laws : the 1922 Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act, replaced by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 and the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1974 which have been renewed every years until 1998. Those emergency laws were heavily criticized by civil liberties and human rights organisations, and were replaced by the Terrorism Act 2000, voted on 20 July 2000, the Terrorism (Northern Ireland) Act 2006 and the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act voted on 24 May 2007. Technically these Acts replaced the previous emergency legislation but re-created it under another form incorporating the panoply of repressive laws introduced after 9-11. (A. Morgan, Northern Ireland Terrorism: The Legal Response, in : J. Dingley (ed), Combating Terrorism in Northern Ireland, London: Routledge, 2009, 164) As a force the PSNI has the duty to enforce those laws. It is perhaps no longer the Orange State’s police force, but is has to enforce the law of the British state which claims the monopoly of force in Northern Ireland.
In November 2012, the Committee on the Adminstration of Justice in a report argued that on occasions the PSNI used stop and search legislation not to search for weapons for example, but for the 'disruption' of persons suspected to be 'dissident' republicans. Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 allows to stop and search people without 'reasonable suspicion'. The code of practice which governs the use of the Terrorism Act 2000 (TACT) specifically bars the use of stop and search as a 'deterrent or intelligence gathering tool'. Since a European court declared Section 44 countrary to its principles, Section 24 of the Justice and Security Act (JSA) - which has similar scope to Section 44- empowered the PSNI to stop and search without reasonable suspicion as a criterion. In one year, the number of people stopped under section 44 jumped from 1163 to 16 023 – a 1277% increase! (P. Nolan (2012), op.cit, 61-62)
The arrest rate in JSA cases is significantly lower than in Police and Criminal Evidence Order (PACE) cases where reasonable suspicion is required. The arrest rate following stop and search is very low in Northern Ireland – in 2012/2013 it was below 6%, even lower than the 9% in England and Wales which the Home Secretary has deemed unacceptable. This suggests stop and search is used for political harassment.
This is an indication of what republicans have called 'policial policing'. The best definition of this has been given by Anthony McIntyre: ‘Political policing may be said to exist when some are either over-policed or under-policed for political rather than legal reasons.’
Some will argue that all the ‘exceptional’ (‘abnormal’ others would say) features of policing described above are in fact a normal and legitimate response to the level of threat faced today by police officers in Northern Ireland who have been targeted on and off duty by republicans continuing the armed struggle. If faced with a situation like that in which officers Carroll and Kerr lost their lives, any other police force in bourgeois-democratic countries would resort to similar measures. If there were no armed actions by republicans today there would not be a need for the PSNI to be the way it is or for such repressive legislation.
The weakness of that argument is that the British state has historically not been able to rule any part of Ireland ‘normally’ as its very presence was contested by some section of the population. Between 1800 and 1921, there were 105 Coercion Acts initiated by Britain in Ireland and the first half century after the 1800 Act of Union, Ireland was ruled by the ordinary law of the land for only five years. Since its inception, because Northern Ireland has lacked sufficient political legitimacy it has been bolstered by an array of repressive measures which have been largely introduced to police and regulate the sizeable nationalist population within its borders.
Legal mechanisms such as the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act 1922, replaced by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1973 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1974 and later by the current anti-terrorist legislation have provided for a range of measures which have been at odds with practices in western bourgeois-democratic states. The exceptional features of policing in Northern Ireland today are illustrative of the fact that many components of the state in Northern Ireland have been unable to function in a ‘normal’ way.
Since 1999 republicans have placed a high emphasis upon discussing policing, from debates about 'Disband the RUC' or 'Implement Patten' to the decision to support the PSNI in 2007. (For an interesting sample see the contributions included in The Politics of Policing published by the James Connolly Debating Society in Belfast in 2007) While a lot of the debate centred on whether the PSNI was in fact the 'Continuity RUC', a central question that was not raised was whether the real shift took place not in the police itself but in the balance between the 'hard power' and the 'soft power' of the state. This should encourage republicans to clarify their concept of the state.