Policing after the Peace Process in Northern Ireland: The Continuing Dialectics Of State Coercion And Popular Consent

Mark Hayes and Paul Norris offer a lengthy analysis of the PSNI which argues that Sinn Fein not the RUC was reformed beyond recognition in order to allow the party to accept the legitimacy of British policing in Ireland.  The authors are Senior Lecturers at Southampton Solent University. Both have a record of publishing material regarding Northern Ireland and have taken a particular interest in policing and human rights.

This article will focus attention on the key issue of structural reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) which was a central component of the “peace process” in Northern Ireland. It will critically evaluate how far this apparently substantive re-calibration of policing contributed to the process of inter-communal conflict resolution, and how far the narrative of “security” still dominates the agenda of policing. This will necessitate a broader contextual evaluation of the dynamics which have driven the “peace process”, principally the pragmatic political engagement of Sinn Fein, and the re-casting of Provisional Republican policy toward policing. It will be argued that pro-active participation by Provisional Sinn Fein, along with cautious acquiescence at key moments, has played a significant role in stabilising the Northern Ireland regime whilst pacifying political resistance. This article will also discuss how far this process of pacification reflects a genuine transformation from conflict to consent, and what implications this may have for the long-term legitimacy of the state.

The very first efforts to develop a professional police force in Ireland, via a Peace Preservation Force and then County Constabularies, controlled by Chief Secretary Sir Robert Peel, were designed to deal with a society where British imperial “law and order” was breaking down, particularly in rural areas. Even the more unified, centralised and quasi-military Constabulary of Ireland (1836) was preoccupied with the threat of Nationalist insurrection. The Constabulary was essentially a colonial force, superimposed upon a society suspicious of its intentions and well aware of its exogenous origins. In 1867 the Constabulary was awarded its “Royal” epithet for suppressing the Fenian uprising, thus becoming the Royal Irish Constabulary, which thereby solidified the connection between Crown, colonialism and coercion. Indeed the British government considered the RIC’s training programme to be “ideal” and from 1907 insisted that all commissioned officers in colonial forces be tutored by the RIC in Dublin (see Mulcahy 2005: 195). The Royal prefix was, in fact, to survive the partition of Ireland in the form of the Royal Ulster Constabulary which contained a nucleus (over 50%) of former RIC officers, and the new Northern organisation retained the same rank, structure, uniform and terms and conditions of service.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officially came into existence on 1 June 1922. As Mulcahy says, policing in the newly formed entity of “Northern Ireland” retained “a strongly colonial feel owing not least to its prominent and problematic role in securing the state” (Mulcahy 2005:195). The one third Catholic quota, set as an initial target, was never filled, and by the late 1920s only 17% of the force was Catholic, falling to 10% in 1969 and less than 8% by the 1990s (see Farrell 1983). The RUC’s early links with the Orange Order, its use of emergency legislation, such as the 1922 Special Powers Act, which Chris Ryder described as “a truly draconian piece of legislation” (Ryder 1997: 57), and the prevailing Loyalist ethos, all contributed to making the RUC an explicitly pro-Unionist police force. Consequently the RUC was seen by most Nationalists as an integral component of the unwanted, artificially created “Northern Ireland” state.

Coercive policing, in effect, ensured that Catholics were discriminated against in terms of culture, employment, housing and the franchise. The ensuing civil rights marches in the 1960s, and the aggressive manner in which they were policed, marked a significant watershed in the history of the RUC and the Unionist state. The events that took place at Burntollet Bridge and in the subsequent “Battle of the Bogside” in Derry in 1969 were to damage, irreversibly, the reputation of the RUC. The Cameron Report (1969) criticised the conduct of the RUC and the Scarman Tribunal (1969) found that “there was a lack of confidence in the police” (Hainsworth 1996: 104), whilst the Hunt Report (1969) recommended a number of substantive reforms in an effort to salvage the credibility of the organisation.

The lineage of the RUC is, therefore, a matter of historical record, and the policing of Northern Ireland was, self-evidently, closely tied to the nature of the state – which was irredeemably Unionist in its ideological outlook and policy practice. In effect the RUC, an overwhelmingly Protestant force, policed “a cold house” for Nationalists, who perceived the RUC as the coercive arm of a sectarian state which denied Catholics equal rights.

By the end of the 1960s Northern Ireland was a deeply divided society. In 1968 76% of Catholics considered themselves to be Irish, and 71% of Protestants identified themselves as British, 84% of whom were opposed to a united Ireland (Boyle and Hadden 1994: 54-62; see Rose 1971). Within the context of this cultural, religious and political dichotomy, and given the asymmetrical power relationship which existed between the respective communities, the police, in robustly defending Unionist hegemony, actually accentuated the ethnic division within society and further alienated the Nationalists.

After the civil rights agitation gave way to armed insurrection by Republicans against the Unionist state (and in the context of on-going Loyalist violence), the RUC became embroiled in a series of major controversies. As the situation in Northern Ireland deteriorated, events in the 1970s and 1980s ensured that attention remained firmly focused on issues relating to policing and the justice system. As the state sought to re-establish its authority policing became further politicised: internment without trial, the creation of non-jury (Diplock) courts, the use of aggressive interrogation techniques and “confession” evidence, the use of plastic baton rounds, accusations of a “shoot to kill” policy and collusion with Loyalist paramilitaries – these were all examples of areas where punitive law enforcement and the maintenance of order precipitated controversy and resistance. As Mulcahy points out, “policing was perhaps the most emotive, divisive and controversial aspect of the conflict” (Mulcahy 2006: 4).

Hence policing and justice issues were central to the dynamics of the conflict in Northern Ireland, although as Ellison explains:

it would be a mistake to situate the problems with policing in Northern Ireland solely with the RUC’s counterinsurgency role…the RUC was a potent reminder for many Catholics and nationalists of their exclusion from the cultural life of the state and its practices. Conversely, for many Protestants and unionists, the RUC provided a symbolic conduit that went right to the heart of their identities within the Northern Ireland state -  (Ellison 2007: 246).

 Consequently it would be reasonable to conclude that the RUC was, essentially, a sectarian police force, and a coercive instrument of Unionist domination, without legitimacy in Nationalist communities. Unsurprisingly Sinn Fein, as the political wing of the Provisional IRA, was the foremost critic of the RUC’s repressive reflexes, portraying the “crown forces” as, in effect, an anachronistic instrument of colonial administration which should be completely de-constructed and replaced. As the Sinn Fein document Scenario for Peace (1987) clearly states (point 4): “British security forces, namely the RUC and UDR must be disbanded” [1].

It is obvious, therefore, that policing was an integral part of the on-going political crisis in Northern Ireland, and substantive reform of policing structures, particularly the RUC itself, had to become an essential element in any proposals designed to to resolve the conflict (see Bayley 2001; 2006; Caparini and Marenin 2004; Stenning and Shearing 2005; Weitzer 1996). As a result, police reform became a central feature of the so-called “peace process” in Northern Ireland. In fact protracted negotiations produced an Independent Commission on Policing (ICP) chaired by Chris Patten, which was established as part of the Belfast Agreement (1998). Substantive reform of the RUC was seen as a crucial component in the construction of a sustainable political compromise and, most importantly, securing the confidence of the Catholic community in policing was considered central to the stability of the agreement, and an essential pre-requisite for a sustained peace. The aim of the Commission was to provide proposals that would, once implemented, create a police service that would operate in partnership with, and be accountable to, the entire community, including Catholic Nationalists. Indeed the “Good Friday Agreement” stated that the ICP’s proposals “should be designed to ensure that policing arrangements, including composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols, are such that in a new approach, Northern Ireland has a police service that can enjoy widespread support from, and is seen as an integral part of, the community as a whole” (UK Government 1998: 22). The ICP consulted widely via a large number of public meetings in which it was estimated that approximately 10,000 people attended, and it reviewed 2,500 written submissions, which led some to conclude that the breadth of the ICP’s consultations endowed its report with a legitimacy that had long been lacking (see Mulcahy 2006). The ICP published its report on 9 September 1999 entitled A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland, which became known colloquially as the “Patten Report” and contained 175 recommendations. The report was based on four guiding principles:-

1. Policing should be a collective responsibility: a partnership for community safety

2. Policing should be informed by the protection of human rights for all

3. Policing must be democratically accountable, politically, legally and financially

4. Policing must be transparent and open

The Report’s main recommendations included: re-naming the service and removing obvious symbols of “Britishness” to reflect the new consociational, power-sharing dispensation; creating a new Policing Board (with 19 members, ten from the Assembly and nine appointed as representatives of the wider community); forming new District Policing Partnership Boards to enhance accountability; having a new Police Ombudsman and Complaints Tribunal; introducing a 50-50 recruitment policy for Catholics and Protestants; implementing a new code of ethics with a strong emphasis on human rights; an emphasis on “normal” community policing and the need for genuine accountability and effective governance (see cain.ulst.ac.uk 2012).

The Patten Report was quite clear that the police should take steps to improve transparency, the presumption being that “everything should be available for public scrutiny unless it is in the public interest – not the police interest – to hold it back” (Patten Report: para 6.38). Police should be “encouraged to address the causes of problems as well as the consequences”, “there should be a substantial reduction in the numbers of officers engaged in security work” (para 12.14) and indeed, police powers to “combat terrorism” should be “the same as in the UK” (para 8.14). It would be fair to say that the recommendations contained within the report caused considerable controversy, not least amongst Unionist politicians who were sceptical about the value of policing reform. In fact the Unionist leader at the time, David Trimble, described it as “the shoddiest piece of work [he had] seen in thirty years” (The Guardian 10 September 1999), and both the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party rejected many of the proposed reforms. On the other hand the SDLP, Alliance Party welcomed it, as did the British and Irish governments [2].

However, by the time The Police (Northern Ireland) Bill was published in May 2000, it was clear that the Patten Report had been watered down, or as one of the Patten Commissioners, Clifford Shearing, put it: “The Patten Report has not been cherry picked – it has been gutted” (cited in The Guardian, 14 November 2000; see CAJ 2012: 30). Some academic experts, such as Hillyard and Tomlinson, were also critical, arguing that the outcome “completely rejects the PCR’s core project” and that the blueprint had “fallen foul of entrenched interests” (Hillyard and Tomlinson 2000: 410 and 415). However, Maurice Hayes (a member of the ICP) took the view that “basically the nationalists have to decide whether they want 90% of something or 100% of nothing” (cited in Irish Times 25 November 2000).

The Bill received the Royal assent on the 23 November 2000 after a lengthy legislative process. The Patten reforms created the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), the Northern Ireland Policing Board and District Police Partnerships. As well as a reformed police service, the Office of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland (OPONI) was established on the 6 November 2000, with the first Ombudsman being Nuala O’Loan. Indeed Ellison argues that this was vital in generating legitimacy for the new policing structures: “without the establishment of the OPONI, the entire reform process would have stalled years ago, and its role in enhancing the legitimacy of the PSNI should not be underestimated” (Ellison 2007: 261). Many of the primary recommendations of the Patten Report were implemented via the Police (Northern Ireland) Acts 2000 and 2003.

The new PSNI was designed to denote a significant, qualitative departure for policing in Northern Ireland, embodying a new ethos compliant with the ECHR. According to the new organisation’s public relations material:

the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s purpose is to make Northern Ireland safer for everyone through professional, progressive policing. We achieve this goal through policing with the community. This pro-active community-driven approach sees the police and local community working together to identify and solve problems. (www.psni 2012).

The “values” of the PSNI were said to be “honesty and openness” and “fairness and courtesy”, with an emphasis on “partnerships, performance and professionalism” which would precipitate a form of policing that “respects the rights of all” (www.psni 2012). This commitment was apparently reflected in the fact that growing numbers of Catholics began to join the force.

It is, however, absolutely crucial to note that the Patten Report and reform of policing became a central plank of Sinn Fein’s strategy in the peace process (along with the human rights “equality” agenda and the release of paramilitary prisoners). Short of their ultimate aim of Irish unification – which was effectively relegated to the status of a long-term aspiration, given the party’s acceptance of the principle of Unionist “consent” – delivering a qualitative transformation in the nature of policing became a key priority for Sinn Fein. Reform of policing was, in short, a critical component in terms of sustaining Sinn Fein’s continued credibility with its own core Republican constituency, in that it was designed to provide a tangible benefit, short of the ultimate ideological objective.

At first Sinn Fein remained sceptical about the extent to which Patten would “transform” the RUC, and remained reluctant to endorse the new arrangements. However, as a consequence of the St. Andrews Agreement (2006), the British government set clear conditions on the restoration of devolved power. It was a critical moment. The Agreement envisaged the devolution of policing and judicial powers after the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Executive had been restored. In the context of significant pressure, applied principally by the British government, Sinn Fein decided to support the PSNI. The Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Hain referred to the decision as an “astonishing breakthrough”.

On 28 January 2007 a special Sinn Fein Ard Fheis approved a motion calling for the devolution of policing and justice services, support for the PSNI and sanctioning the appointment of party representatives to the Policing Board and District Policing Partnership Boards. The motion, stated:

This Ard Fheis supports civic policing through a police service which is representative of the community it serves, free from partisan political control and democratically accountable …The PSNI needs to make strenuous efforts to earn the trust and confidence of nationalists and republicans …This Ard Fheis is totally opposed to political, sectarian and repressive policing. The experience of nationalists and republicans in the Six Counties is of a partisan, unionist militia which engaged in harassment, torture, assassination, shoot-to-kill, and collusion with death squads. The Good Friday Agreement requires and defines a ‘new beginning to policing’ as an essential element of the process” (www.sinnfein June 2012).

After a six hour debate, over 95% of the 900 or so delegates voted in favour. The Ard Chomhairle (National Executive) was tasked to implement the motion. The Sinn Fein spokesperson on policing, Alex Maskey claimed that, through the Sinn Fein members of the Policing Board (himself, Martina Anderson and Daithi McKay) along with local DPPs, they would be able to deliver a new civic police service, fully accountable and representative of the community, and that “partisan, political policing” and “collusion” would be consigned to history. In effect Sinn Fein, according to Maskey and others, was going into the Policing Board to hold the PSNI to account. A commitment to law and order, the party noted, was critical for a stable and inclusive power-sharing government based upon partnership, consent and good faith, and the party encouraged everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the police and other criminal justice institutions [3].

The Northern Ireland Assembly met on 8 May 2007, precipitating the remarkable “photo-opportunity” of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness working together in government. The “spin doctors” at Stormont had a unique field-day, disseminating the extraordinary images and commenting upon the so-called “chuckle-brothers” performing their duties together. Crucially, it was Sinn Fein’s acceptance of the policing framework, and its commitment to the “law and order” agenda, that underpinned this unlikely political liaison with the loyalists in the DUP. In effect the last vestiges of equivocation about Sinn Fein’s support for the Northern Ireland state were removed. As The Times (London) announced, with appropriate solemnity: “Irish republicans have served notice that they will work with British sovereignty in Ulster” (29 January 2007). The US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, commended the leadership of Gerry Adams, whilst many others, including the Independent Monitoring Commission (whose members included an ex-CIA Deputy Director and a former high ranking Metropolitan Police Officer), were effusive in their praise for Sinn Fein’s capacity to compromise on this fundamental issue. The “new” Police Service of Northern Ireland was, therefore, not only designed to be the cornerstone of the new political dispensation, and the key to securing a sustainable long-term peace, its success was actually crucial to the political integrity of Sinn Fein.

However, the PSNI has been beset by difficulties, and criticism of “post-peace” policing in Northern Ireland, although somewhat diminished, has by no means disappeared. Awkward questions are still being asked about whether the Patten reforms have indeed provided a genuinely new type of “community” policing.

For example, the issue of accountability for state security is both interesting and indicative. Sinn Fein noted with some satisfaction the prospect of removing MI5 from policing structures in Northern Ireland, which would thereby effectively separate, they argued, political from civic policing and apparently obviate the danger of perpetuating a “force within a force”. In fact this was a misunderstanding, if not a myopic misrepresentation, of the actual proposals. The Patten Report made it clear that policing would be devolved “except for matters of national security” (Patten: para 6.15) and Annex E of the St. Andrews Agreement allowed MI5 to take overall charge of security arrangements in Northern Ireland, whilst continuing to run agents in collaboration with the PSNI (see CAJ 2012:10).

From 2007 the primacy of MI5 in terms of security policing in Northern Ireland has been explicit, and the various security services, run from Whitehall, continue to play a key role in the pacification of “the province”. Indeed “the transfer to MI5 has ensured that policy on ‘national security’ covert policing remains largely secret, under the direct political control of London Ministers, and subject to very limited oversight” (CAJ 2012:14). Of course MI5 has an extremely controversial history of nefarious activity in Northern Ireland, along with the RUC’s Special Branch and the British Army’s clandestine Force Research Unit. For example, British security services ran special agents in the IRA, such as Freddie Scappaticci and Denis Donaldson, and British agents colluded with Loyalist paramilitaries in the assassination of the lawyer Pat Finucane.

Moreover, nobody seriously believes that the full extent of MI5 infiltration into the highest leadership levels of the Provisional Republican movement has been fully revealed. In effect it can be plausibly argued that the British state’s security services, often acting beyond the law, actually “fuelled and exacerbated the conflict” (CAJ 2012:15). Yet the same organisation(s) have retained control of security affairs, and their influence remains undiminished. In effect, according to the Committee for the Administration of Justice, the available information tends to confirm the fact that MI5 has “dictated” security strategy in Northern Ireland (CAJ 2012: 7). A new MI5 HQ is being built at Palace Barracks outside Belfast (Loughside), and MI5 has actively recruited ex-RUC Special Branch Officers. Indeed, of MI5’s total UK budget, one third remains allocated to operations in Northern Ireland and it takes the lead role in monitoring “dissident” republicans - and any substantive “executive action” will be taken by MI5 (with the PSNI in a supporting role). MI5 may “brief” the Policing Board in secret session about issues considered “appropriate”, but will not be accountable to that body on “security related” issues. In short, the same intelligence structures that organised collusion throughout the “troubles” and murdered innocent Catholics not only remains in place but, in some senses, have been strengthened.

Moreover, the indication is that MI5 has been tasked with focusing on “dissident” Republicans rather than Loyalists, which raises the spectre of “two-tier” covert policing (see CAJ 2012:15). Certainly the claim made at the time by British Secretary of State Shaun Woodward that Britain’s continued control of security in the six counties was due to the threat of Al Qaeda is risible, and assurances about accountability should be treated with scepticism.

This ongoing controversy surrounding clandestine policing in Northern Ireland has led CAJ Director Brian Gormally to call for an independent review into the “unaccountable” security services which constitute “a disaster waiting to happen” (cited in McCaffrey 2012). If RUC Special Branch was a “force within a force” then MI5 has become a “force outside a force”, or as some commentators have suggested - “Special Branch has just moved down the road”! (McCaffrey 2012; CAJ 2012: 98 and 104). The proposed insertion of the “National Crime Agency” into the Northern Ireland security framework can only further entrench British control from London and widen the accountability gap (see CAJ 2012).

In addition to this, in 2009, the PSNI confirmed that the British Army’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) was active in Northern Ireland (CAJ 2012: 75). The SSR was established in 2005 to replace the 14th Intelligence Unit and Force Research Unit, which had played a key, clandestine role in the “dirty war” in Ireland. Hence, the notion of “state security” remains vague enough to be subject to flexible interpretation by British secret agencies and sufficiently important to transcend the normal requirements for oversight, accountability and democratic control. Overall there is little doubt that strategic control of state security resides in London with the PSNI playing a supportive, subsidiary role. This is a situation which Sinn Fein has been prepared to accept, if not explicitly endorse.

Then there has been the problem of the Police Ombudsman. Acrimonious debate surrounded the much-delayed publication of Nuala O’Loan’s damning Police Ombudsman’s Report (2007) on the murder of Ray McCord, which revealed collusion between RUC Special Branch and UVF Loyalists in North Belfast, particularly Mount Vernon UVF member and police informer Mark Haddock. Unionists and Loyalists predictably attacked O’Loan, and the British government anxiously referred to a “culture of conflict” which should be consigned to the past. Al Hutchinson took over from Nuala O’Loan in 2007 but lost the support of key members of his staff, indeed some resigned claiming that key information had been withheld from them during the course of investigations. The allegation, made in a University of Ulster Report, was that the NIO had effectively interfered in the Ombudsman’s office and that there was a lack of real and practical independence from the PSNI (especially with regard to the investigation of historic murders). A report by Criminal Justice Inspector Dr. Michael Maguire reached similar conclusions, claiming that a number of Ombudsman reports were altered or re-written to exclude criticism of the RUC and PSNI. In effect the Ombudsman was accused of covering up police criminality. Michael Maguire himself was confirmed as the new Police Ombudsman after Hutchinson stepped down in January 2012.

There has also been controversy over former RUC officers who have been re-hired as part of the reform process as “civilian contractors” for the PSNI (of 399 contracts – 304 were secured by former RUC men, nearly half of whom are involved in “intelligence”). In fact former RUC Special Branch Officers have migrated into the new Department of Justice on large salaries, having already been paid off by the RUC [4]. The PSNI, in effect, exploited a loophole in the Patten report which allowed the re-hiring of officers in a “civilian” capacity. These re-hired officers are not accountable to the Ombudsman, do not take the police oath or sign up to the code of ethics. The “re-hiring” issue has added considerable weight to claims that genuine reform has proven to be elusive, and that the changes in policing practice have been largely cosmetic.

Controversy continues to follow the PSNI. Recent statistics, obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act, indicate that there were 33 suspensions (on full pay) of PSNI officers between July 2011 and July 2012, with two officers dismissed and four required to resign. Allegations included assault, death threats, perjury, being drunk in charge of a loaded firearm and sending sectarian text messages (see Irish Times 8 August 2012).

In the same period, the PSNI relied heavily on Section 44 of the Terrorism Act (2000) before such activity was declared unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights; key reports sent to PSNI regarding certain killings were mysteriously “lost”, throwing inquests into confusion; they have kept DNA samples of innocent people, contrary to EU law; they have formalised liaison with the Israeli police force over public order policing; and they have continued to use plastic baton rounds and water canon in public order situations (the use of unmanned aerial surveillance “drones” is being considered to combat crime and “dissident” Republicans). Indeed, the Justice and Security (Northern Ireland) Act still affords the PSNI extensive discretionary power to “stop and search” without reasonable suspicion, which appears to be most extensively used in certain working class Nationalist areas i.e. precisely those communities that have questioned the legitimacy of “partisan” state policing in the past (see CAJ 2012: 73-74).

Meanwhile there has apparently been systematic harassment of certain political activists, notably Gary Donnelly in Derry, Micky Lavelle in Newtownbutler and Stephen Murney in Newry, which has included arrest on spurious charges, house raids, and extensive stop and search intimidation. The detention, without trial, of Marian Price after her part in a Republican Commemoration was emblematic of both the fragile nature of civil liberties in Northern Ireland and the coercive capacity of the PSNI. There has even been strong evidence of the security services running “agents provocateurs” in an effort to deter and disrupt “dissident” Republicans and, perhaps, de-stabilize the peace process (see, for example, the controversy surrounding the aborted prosecution of Anton Craig and the murder of Kieran Doherty, CAJ 2012: 70 and 71). This kind of narrative suggests a continuing combination of sectarianism and social control rather than consensual community policing based upon accountability and civic responsibility.

As David Garland has pointed out in a broader context:

in any institutional setting there are basic recipes that shape thinking and guide decision making. These recipes are not articulated theories or legal guidelines but instead habits of thought and routine styles of reasoning that are embedded in the precedents and practices of the institution” (Garland 2002:188).

This is the idea of an ingrained, institutional “common sense” precipitated by the structure, culture and historical logic of the organisation itself. Such values are deeply rooted and extremely difficult to unlearn. Indeed members of the institution, having assimilated the values so completely, may be (to a significant extent) unaware of their significance – there exists, in short, a reflexive disjuncture, which reflects a culture that is apparently impervious to exogenous influences. The extent of the reflexive disjuncture with regard to policing in Northern Ireland is perhaps best illustrated by the Assistant Chief Constable William Kerr who, in the PSNI “Programme of Action” 2010-2011, states unequivocally:

The PSNI is committed to a rights based approach to policing. This is well established in our current working practices and policies, and we are widely acknowledged as international leaders in this area…We are wholly committed to the primacy of rights based policing in everything we do (www.psni 2012).

In fact the culturally assimilated values and organisational ethos of the PSNI - those deeply ingrained ideas and attitudes – have been inherited from the RUC. These are notions about the importance of monitoring and controlling political protest, and the need to coerce political opponents, particularly Republicans, who are assumed to be irredeemably wicked and immoral. These are the values that many PSNI officers (especially those involved in intelligence) have assimilated, almost instinctively, and which forms part of the cultural memory of a colonial force which Patten has altered somewhat, but singularly failed to eliminate. In effect, therefore, the colonial logic of counter-insurgent security, so evident in the RUC during the “troubles”, has simply been retained and refined by the PSNI. Using the pre-emptive, anticipatory and value-laden lexicon of “dissident” and “terrorist”, various state sanctions can be applied without reference to empirical evidence or recourse to law via the criminal justice system (see McCulloch and Pickering 2009). Here the emphasis on “security” and the preventative “management of risk” constitutes, at least in part, a continued reliance on circumstantial “intelligence” information and subjectively applied coercion.

Inevitably, in this process, the construction of the exceptional “other”, through a heavily politicised frame of reference, fatally undermines key judicial notions such as the presumption of innocence and the importance of impartial due process. The danger of this approach being driven principally by the discriminatory dynamic of political and social prejudice is obvious, and the underlying parallels here with the authoritarian logic of Carl Schmitt’s “friend-enemy” thesis are disturbing, but unmistakeable. Unfortunately Chief Constable Matt Baggott’s conclusion in the PSNI Annual Report 2010-11 that “the PSNI will continue to provide an impartial, personal, professional and protective police service for all’ (PSNI Annual Report 2010-11, italics added) remains, to a significant degree, an unsubstantiated assertion rather than a statement of fact. The discourse and dispensation of “state security” and “colonial counter-insurgency” remains deeply woven into the fabric of practical “policing” in Northern Ireland. As the recent CAJ Report concluded:

if the transition to a peaceful society is our goal it is clear that such change will be hampered if past practices which caused the legitimacy of policing to be called into question are allowed to continue (CAJ 2012).

Although it might be persuasively argued that policing is, fundamentally, about power and legitimacy, and that this phenomenon is also inherent in most policing structures (to a greater or lesser degree), in Northern Ireland policing has been, and is, particularly problematic. As Neocleous has explained: “all roads lead to the state in the concept of police” (Neocleous 2000:118) and this observation is particularly apposite in post-Patten, post-Peace Process Northern Ireland. Policing in this contested corner of the dis-United Kingdom has been so controversial because the legitimacy of the state has been seriously questioned and there has been a recent (unsuccessful) attempt at armed insurrection. The recent “Peace Process” was constructed upon a commitment to the reform of policing structures, principally the RUC, and the failure of this reform may yet prove to be critical.

Crucially, those “dissident” republicans keen to continue resistance and destroy the Belfast Agreement realise that policing is likely to be the key component in their campaign to consign it to the dustbin of history. In short, “dissident” Republicans have seized on the issue of policing. The more heavy-handed the police are in dealing with Republicans, the more radicalized they will become and the more support they are likely to receive from those alienated elements in Nationalist communities. As Pantazis and Pemberton have pointed out:

it is well documented that the use of ‘hard’ approaches during the Irish conflict against the Catholic community served as a recruitment tool for the Irish Republican Army” (Pantazis and Pemberton 2009: 660).

There is no reason to suppose that this equation will produce a different result now, and the very strategy deployed to provide “security” contains within it the capacity to undermine it. Once more the PSNI are being portrayed as an exogenous “foreign” force imposed upon the Nationalist community and are therefore a “legitimate target”, and a wide variety of Republican “dissidents” evidently believe resistance will coalesce around community responses to the continued existence of coercive policing.

It would, of course, be easy to dismiss the criticism of the PSNI by such groups as entirely predictable and ideologically motivated, but fear of the political consequences of poor policing is not confined to Republican groups - it was (ex Chief Constable of Northern Ireland) Hugh Orde who acknowledged that it was what he called “the Continuity RUC” which itself constituted a critical danger to the stability of the Peace Process. So huge question marks remain over the PSNI and policing in Northern Ireland which reflect the difficulties encountered by policy-makers when attempting to reform an institution that has a long and distinctive cultural and political memory and which is tied, in essence, to the continued existence of the Northern Ireland (i.e. Unionist) state.

In this context Sinn Fein’s transformation with regard to policing has been remarkable. Despite some robust rhetoric from key strategists about the persistence of “reactionaries” in the PSNI, the party has stood squarely behind the “reformed” organisation. The extent of Sinn Fein’s integration in the new policing dispensation can be gauged with reference to one highly pertinent example, which occurred after the party was presented with unambiguous evidence of PSNI links with Loyalist gangs.

Whereas historically “collusion” was always considered a reason not to engage with policing organisations and, indeed, a justification for complete abolition – it was now identified as a reason to engage with such organisations! According to Gerry Adams “collusion” was another compelling reason why Republicans should take ownership of the policing mechanisms, in order to ensure full accountability. Sinn Fein’s integration as part of the Northern Ireland state could hardly be clearer.

In fact it might also be argued that former PIRA insurgents have been deployed to “police” their own communities in order to “protect” the new political arrangements. Importantly, the impulse of the new PSNI to assert coercive control has been re-calibrated to incorporate some pro-state Provisional “Republican” elements in ensuring the continued intimidation and harassment of non-conformist, so-called “dissident” Republicans. There is disturbing evidence that ex-Provisional paramilitaries have harassed, intimidated and even killed recalcitrant members of their own community - the cases of Anthony McIntyre, Micky Donnelly and Jo Jo O’Connor provide disturbing evidence of extra legal sanctions, including murder, being applied by Provisionals with the complicity of police officers [5]. In this sense the Provisional Republicans have not only effectively accepted British jurisdiction over the northern six counties, they have been co-opted by the British state as junior partners in a strategy designed to subdue its core constituency and intimidate ideological Republicans who refuse to accept the “new” political arrangements.

In this way, as Niall O’Dochartaigh has suggested, Sinn Fein has been effectively “Ulsterised”, indeed: “as Sinn Fein members condemn dissident republicans and offer strong support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), Irish republicanism in the North seems at times to have been comprehensively domesticated, a Northern Ireland phenomenon that can be safely contained within the boundaries of the state, distinguished now from ‘normal’ political parties only by its empty rhetorical commitment to an alternative nation” (O’Dochartaigh 2012: 256).

There is no doubt that Sinn Fein’s participation in the peace process and the dramatic scaling down of its political aspirations were a critical component in the “success” of the peace process and GFA. Critically, the party’s continued commitment to policing is crucial to sustaining the integrity of the new arrangements – Sinn Fein has effectively aligned itself with the PSNI and the fate of both organisations and, more generally, the Peace Process, are inextricably inter-twined. In essence Sinn Fein has little choice but to continue to work with the PSNI given that it is administering British rule in Northern Ireland. As a result it is the issue of policing which exposes Sinn Fein’s political vulnerability in a most practical and obvious way. Sinn Fein may have reached what it sees as a pragmatic political compromise, but to critics it appears to look much more like outright capitulation. In that sense the performance of the PSNI has profound implications for Sinn Fein and peace in Northern Ireland.

Certainly the issues raised here point to the gradual erosion of Sinn Fein’s strategic bridgehead, which was designed to lead (by “hollowing out” the Union) to a united Ireland. The weakness of that strategy (certainly in terms of securing ultimate ideological objectives) is obvious. In terms of Republican ideology the Provisional movement has clearly failed – the Unionists and Loyalists have won, even though at times it appears as though they lack the cognitive capacity to recognise this fact themselves . The recent protests by Loyalists over the issue of the Union flag protests cannot obscure this fundamental political reality. The more disturbing consequence for the pro-treaty pro-state Republican movement is that their failure to oversee a distinct qualitative change in the nature of policing in Northern Ireland not only reflects their tactical and strategic weakness, but may re-enforce the “dissident” contention that any substantive transformation in policing (and society) is ultimately contingent upon securing the political objective so spectacularly denied to Sinn Fein – Irish unification. For many Republicans (and socialists) Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have put the cart before the horse, and the credibility-deficit in the core Republican constituency is expanding exponentially. The consequences for the Peace Process, and indeed the legitimacy of the Unionist state, may yet prove to be profound.


[1] Sinn Fein, on numerous occasions, accused the RUC of collaborating with Loyalist paramilitaries. For example Gerry Adams even accused the RUC of collusion in the Milltown cemetery attack by Loyalist Michael Stone on 16 March 1988, during which three people were killed. It might also be noted that Sinn Fein was also fond of deploying the slogan “SS-RUC”.

[2] Academic reaction to reaction to Patten was mixed, with some being quite positive, for example Chris Ryder (a former member of the Police Authority of Northern Ireland, and author of the history of the RUC) who said the report was “’an unusually articulate and elegantly written document by the standard of official public reports. It is an intellectually reasoned and logically argued manifesto to transform the 77 year old Royal Ulster Constabulary from a police force to a renamed and rebranded Northern Ireland Police Service’” (cited in Irish Times, 10 September 1999). Others were more critical, see for example: Hillyard and Tomlinson (2000), Brogden (2001), Beirne (2001) and Ellison and Mulcahy (2001) who nevertheless argued that “if the Patten Report is not perfect, and if its implementation leaves a lot to be desired... it should not blind us to its potential” (Ellison and Mulcahy 2001: 256).

[3] Cynical observers noted that the abolition of the Assets Recovery Agency and the promise of a “spending review” may have helped Sinn Fein sell the deal to rank-and-file activists, especially those having an acquaintance with the lucrative robbery of Northern Bank in 2004.

[4] The Patten Report said that the early retirement or severance package offered to regular officers and full-time reservists aged 50 or above should include “a generous lump sum payment according to length of service” and include pension enhancement of up to five years (para13.12). UK and UN agencies employing police services were also encouraged to take note of the experience of ex-RUC men (para 13.19). Interesting articles relating to this issue can be found in local newspapers such as Newry Times, Fermanagh Herald and Impartial Reporter.

[5] Anthony McIntyre is an ex-IRA member and academic who was persistently harassed by Provisionals in Belfast over his principled opposition to Sinn Fein’s political strategy. He moved his wife and family from Ballymurphy to Drogheda. Micky Donnelly is a prominent Republican activist in Derry who was brutally attacked in his own home in June 1998 by ex-Provisional paramilitaries (the police “investigation” into what was, in effect, attempted murder was extraordinary even by RUC standards!). Jo Jo O’Conner was a “dissident” Republican murdered, it’s widely believed, by pro-state Provisionals in Belfast in October 2000.


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  1. Mark & Paul,

    thanks for this very substantive piece. One of the things I found timely is the piece showing how Patten was hollowed out yet today we have Sinn Fein recommending it as the model that should be used with An Garda. They continue to mask their failure on the policing issue.

  2. This is a great article. The sectarianism of the RUC referred to here fits in perfectly with Stormont's crude and un-British behaviour during WW2 when the LDV/Home guard in N.I. were the only section demanding pay. It was also based on the B-Specials, thus ensuring a reluctance on the part of Catholics joining the force or benefitting from the war effort.


    Do you have any material from these academics which may be of interest for my PHD?