Has David Ford even read the Patten Report?

Alliance Party leader David Ford must have watched last December as British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered a public apology for the unchecked, extra-judicial and murderous activities of the Force Research Unit (or FRU) in Ireland. Cameron lamented at the time that, “The collusion demonstrated beyond any doubt… is totally unacceptable”.

The issue with collusion was never simply that it happened but rather how it happened: how a culture of impunity emerged and was sustained; how state agents managed to act extra-judically, without fear of local oversight or local accountability. Real policing reform, starting with the Patten Report and culminating with the appointment of a local Justice Ministry with responsibility for local policing, was desiged to end that nefarious, lethal culture.

Why then is David Ford advocating for the introduction of the NCA, the National Crime Agency, to Northern Ireland?

Thanks to the SDLP and SF, the NCA will not be coming to a dark corner near your community (though it probably will anyway).

The Alliance Party may be out of touch with the meat of recent negotiations, but for anyone remotely familiar with the reasons fundamental policing reform was fought for and secured by Nationalist parties in the years before and since the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, SF and the SDLP’s determination to block an NCA usurpation of local policing powers is easy to understand.

Local Policing Accountability is a red line issue for Nationalists, and hopefully others besides.

As the BBC reported, were the new NCA given a pass to circumnavigate both the PSNI and the local policing boards’ powers of accountability and oversight, the consequences would include the concession of the following powers to shadowy operatives free from the scrutiny of locally elected officials:

- the powers of a police constable in Northern Ireland;
– the authority to carry out searches and make arrests;
– the ability to conduct surveillance operations;
– the ability to recruit and run informers and agents.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that extra-judicial killings, corruption and a general social poisoning were direct consequences of policing operations that were insulated from accountability to the local communities they at times terrorized, the Alliance Party’s leader David Ford appears confused. According to Ford,

“There is a real danger if it does not go ahead there will be very significant costs to the police both in terms of time and finances and that we will have an inferior response to the serious organised crime that we face,”

David Ford, NI’s only minister not appointed under the d’Hont mechanism, cannot be unaware (surely?) that some of the most “serious organised crime” Northern Ireland has ever faced was organized by agents of the state who were left free to operate beyond the scrutiny of locally elected officials.

The Alliance Party has earned some decent media of late but little, if any, of that has been down to the actions – or inactions – of its leader. While M.P for East Belfast Naomi Long – Ford’s conspicuous, dignified and determined party colleague – has executed the responsibilities of elected office with elan and courage, Ford’s knee-shakingly timid response to weeks of rioting, road blocks and attacks on police officers has, by contrast, left many wondering: what’s the point of having a Justice Minister at all?

Now that Ford has reappeared his attempts to remind everyone that he’s still on post by acting as lead Cheer Leader for the introduction of the NCA to Northern Ireland, his calls for a reversion to the days of policing of the people but not by the people, has only served to aggrevate those who hadn’t forgotten he was still around.

It is difficult to assess what is more disturbing: a locally appointed Justice Minister who believes his power to hold ‘intelligence operations’ to account are too many, or a Justice Minister who appears blissfully unaware of why his post was created in the first place. Either way, confidence in Ford’s ability to man the Justice Minsitry can never have been lower. Though he may not have claimed much personal input towards the original Patter inspired policing reforms, by endorsing the NCA and the loss of local accountability the question must be asked: Has he even read the Patten Report?

Let’s assume Ford has read Patten. Let’s assume he has listened to the British Prime Minister acknowledge and apologize for the murder of Irish citizens by, at best, ‘out of control’ extra-judicial paramilitary policing agents. Let’s assume Ford also understands that local powers of accountability are a minimum bulwark against slipping back into the days when Ireland was treated as a counter-insurgency laboratory.

Assuming all that, could the Alliance Party please tell us why local people should have any faith whatsoever in unaccountable intelligence agents run from outside Northern Ireland?

Does the Alliance Party simply not understand the reasons Nationalists (primarily though not exclusively) will not countenance losing hard won powers to hold policing actions accountable?

Some will argue that Alliance’s positioning here is less about policing policy than political posturing; Ford’s attempt to distinguish his party from the SDLP. I’m not convinced this is that thought-through. Perhaps someone could hand him a copy of Patten before he leaves?