Let the cops get on and be cops

Alex Kane argues that, Sinn Fein fundamentally views any police force in Northern Ireland as the “most visible aspect of the political reality that there isn’t a united Ireland. They view the police here as the front line of the ‘foreign occupation’.” As such, he beleives that Sinn Fein will seek to keep ‘reform’ in play as long as it possibly can, without any obvious principle for closure. In the meantime, he argues, the PSNI, the ASA and other organisations are being distracted from serious police work by having to play politics in the media.By Alex Kane

There is, and always has been, a fundamental disingenuousness to Sinn Fein’s position on policing in general and the Policing Board in particular. Republicans regard the police force in Northern Ireland as the most visible aspect of the political reality that there isn’t a united Ireland. They view the police here as the front line of the “foreign occupation.” To most republicans, membership of such a force amounts to a form of collaboration. The IRA and Sinn Fein will always see it in that light. Therefore, they regard it as an ongoing priority to either destroy such a force, or else dilute its effectiveness and efficiency to the point where everyone regards it with a severely jaundiced eye.

Consequently, a 50/50 recruitment policy was always going to be a gratuitously offensive policy. How could anyone ever have believed that republicans would be persuaded that any degree of collaboration was acceptable? If republicans and nationalists remain committed to a united Ireland, then how could 50/50 recruitment be regarded as a realistic solution to the so-called policing problem? From their perspective, the policing problem lies in the fact that this is about a police force in the United Kingdom, rather than an all-Ireland force. So, rather than de-politicise or de-sectarianise the force, which 50/50 was supposedly intended to do, it has merely balkanised the issue.

The primary criterion for admission into a police force should be the willingness of the applicants to enforce the law—in this case, the law of the United Kingdom. Employment should not be based on religious background; particularly in circumstances where your religious background is also used as the main means of defining your probable political outlook. Indeed, earlier this week the Prime Minister, in a curiously stupid speech, made the connection between religion and “the strain of extremism” which can be associated with it. On that logic he seems to be endorsing the notion that Roman Catholicism and republicanism really could be one and the same thing. Heaven’s above! Tony Blair is, himself, a bigot.

I have no objection to Roman Catholics, or Protestants, or Buddhists, or atheists in the police force. But I do have objections to nationalists and republicans in the force. For when republicans and nationalists talk of “balance,” they actually mean constitutional balance. They are not talking about creating a police force which is acceptable within Northern Ireland as such; rather, they are talking about a police force which is acceptable, albeit for different reasons, to separate communities. That sort of force can never be effective and nor can it ever hope to appeal to the general public.

But that’s still not enough for Sinn Fein. Their aim is to further demoralise, destabilise and undermine, making the terms and conditions of employment as unpalatable as possible. Having failed in their effort to prove Northern Ireland to be a non-viable entity, they have turned their attention to what was once the most visible evidence that Northern Ireland was a legitimate and viable state. As Mitchell Reiss put it, it is going to take a lot to persuade Adams to “give away his last high card” and endorse the police.

The RUC was a good force, which did an outstanding job in often appalling circumstances. Yes, Sinn Fein hated it. But I would contend that Sinn Fein would hate any police force here. And, to be honest, the SDLP isn’t much better in its approach. A police force is not there to mirror the political and constitutional make-up of society; and a police force should never be accountable to politicians who have difficulties with the constitutional status of the very state which the police force is there to uphold and protect.

Is there an alternative to the existing mess? Yes. Scrap the Policing Board. Scrap 50/50. Scrap the absurd levels of political interference. Scrap the photo-opportunistic antics of the Assets Recovery Agency. Drag Hugh Orde away from the media. Scrap the notion of local Policing and Justice Ministers. Scrap the Police Ombudsman’s office. Then maybe, just maybe, the police force could get on and deal with the rising tide of crime that is sweeping across Northern Ireland.

The greatest travesty of all, though, is that having destroyed the RUC, the government now seems determined to visit the same fate upon its successor; all to keep Sinn Fein happy. But Sinn Fein can never be happy on this issue, for this is far worse for them than decommissioning ever was.


Published in the Newsletter, Saturday 25th March 2006

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty