“Just because someone has a past…”?

MICK and I were emailing each other last week about republicanism and policing, and I mentioned Robert McBride to him as someone with a story to tell. Coincidentally, today’s new compact Irish News has splashed on McBride’s incredible and controversial journey from ANC bomber to South African police chief, with the Pat Finucane Centre saying it could “inspire confidence” in the peace process. Barry McCaffrey talks to McBride, who has Irish roots, in an interview that is well worth reading, and there are some important points that deserve to be brought out in this worthwhile contribution to the debate on policing and justice – which many believe are key to the success of the whole peace process here.On former combatants now turning to criminality, McBride, who has been compared to Gerry Kelly (though obviously McBride has gone much further on his journey than the former IRA bomber), says:

“There are people on both sides, white establishment and ANC, who were given military training but have never fully recovered from what went on pre-1994.

“We are working with the business sector to try and develop a system where we can train them in the best areas where jobs are needed.

“These people were trained to fight and kill, now that the war is over we can’t leave them outside the system.

“If we bring former combatants into the mainstream, they cease to be a burden.

“If you ignore them and exclude them, then of course there is a danger they are going to turn to crime.”

This is something many people, particularly unionists, find it difficult to understand in Northern Ireland, where it is seen as rewarding crime by some or terrorist appeasement by others. Nevertheless, other comments by McBride will be at least as difficult for some republicans to buy into:

“The only reason policing works is because we achieved a political settlement first.

“It is crucial that a political settlement is found before you can realistically hope to tackle policing.

“We found that in South Africa and I think that is still the problem in

Ireland. Policing can’t come before a political settlement.”

However the former ANC activist also warns that once that political settlement is found, former paramilitaries can not stand in the way of proper and accountable community policing.

“It is easy for revolutionaries to oppose an unacceptable state or government.

“But once an acceptable political settlement is found it is much harder to oppose the introduction of proper policing.

“Former combatants who find themselves involved in a new police force have to be doubly committed to making it work.”

In Northern Ireland we do not have an “acceptable political settlement”. In fact, under the current circumstances, it is unlikely that will be possible, since the Assembly depended upon a level of trust and confidence that doesn’t exist. Indeed, it has been argued by some that constant crises are manufactured for party political gain.

But for those who think former enemies couldn’t work together in a single police service, McBride’s colleague – an officer from the old South African police regime – said:

“He has won the trust of his officers, black and white, because he has shown that he is only interested in protecting the community.

“Robert McBride is on the ground with his officers when there is a problem. I some times have to tell him that he is our police chief and doesn’t have to be on the front line.

“That’s just the way he is, he won’t ask someone to do something he wouldn’t do himself.

“People need to give the man a chance. And to be fair I think they are doing that.

“Judge Robert McBride on what he is doing now, not what happened in the past.”

For a critical examination of McBride’s previous intervention in the debate on policing and republicanism, this article by Anthony McIntyre suggests that “being a peeler on behalf of a black elite was palatable in a way that was unthinkable under a white elite”.

This, McIntyre argues, is because in South Africa the old Apartheid regime has gone, yet in NI the ‘old’ regime remains in control. For him, the ‘settlement’ was too close to the status quo; the regime change never happened and the settlement was always unstable anyway.

With his usual cynicism about mainstream republicanism’s motivation for supporting such interventions, McIntyre adds that it “is consistent with a well-established leadership practice of neutralising potential key opinion formers, particularly those from within the ex-prisoner community.”