issues of the past have established a barrier in the road toward re-establishing the trust necessary

The Policing Board are meeting today, with new political members and new independent members present, and after re-electing Desmond Rea and Barry Gilligan as chair and vice-chair they were presented with the final report [pdf file] from the Policing Oversight Commissioner Al Hutchison. NI Security Miinister Paul Goggins MP has already welcomed it, and with 140 of the 175 Patten recommendations implemented in full it looks good for the PSNI.. but there’s an interesting point highlighted in this report – there are fewer Catholic officers in the senior ranks of the PSNI now than there were in 1999. But, importantly, the report from the Oversight Commissioner also, for the first time, questions how we are dealing with the past – see below.First some detail on those figures

The PSNI now has more than 21 per cent Catholics, compared with just 8 per cent in 1999. But Mr Hutchinson insisted more needed to be done further up the organisation.

“The Police Service has provided no evidence demonstrating an effort to identify senior Northern Ireland Catholic officers serving in other police services as a means to address the community background imbalance in the senior ranks,” his report said.

“While this appears to be, in part, based on the perceived difficulty in making such identification, it has made no sustained effort to action this potential source of Catholic officers.

“Catholics in the senior ranks stood at 16 per cent in 1999 and now stands at 12 per cent, in a large part due to the number of senior Catholic officers taking advantage of severance.”

In his final report [pdf file] Al Hutchison also looks ahead to future challenges for the police, and everyone else, among those challenges is a question repeatedly asked here – how to deal with the past..

A Choice: Policing the Past, or Policing the Future?

Policing practices of the past are clearly influencing perceptions of present-day policing in Northern Ireland. Some believe that the past security policing methods were appropriate and necessary for the times, bringing the stability enjoyed today; others believe that the methods and styles used, including allegations of collusion, are never appropriate and should be sanctioned. The truth is probably buried in the murky world of those overlapping perceptions. What is undeniable is that many people want many different and often conflicting things: truth, justice, retribution, an opaque wall shielding the past, or simply the end to the financial drain from reliving the past. What is clear to me is that it is an issue hindering the forward progress of policing. I believe that there is a choice to be made for the future of policing in Northern Ireland, and it is a difficult one. The dilemma is this: Is there going to be a continual debilitating drip-feed of speculation, inquires and investigations into past police practice, or is the majority of the Northern Ireland society willing to move on, in some yet-to-be-defined manner, and regard the Police Service of Northern Ireland as a new organisation that has itself moved on and demonstrated that it has learned from the past? It is a serious question and deserves serious reflection.

I have not previously publicly discussed this issue, simply because it is so emotive and almost defies rational discussion. Who can argue against a search for truth and justice after losing loved ones because of alleged security forces collusion? Who can argue against a search for truth and justice for the thousands of victims and their families, from many communities? As noted recently by the Police Service Superintendents Association, there should not be a hierarchy of victims. This includes the 302 police officers who lost their lives, and their surviving families. How can they be excluded from a search for truth and justice?

I am raising the issue of ‘policing the past’ from the singular perspective of policing the future of Northern Ireland. I do believe that the Northern Ireland society somehow has to find the proper
architecture to deal with the past, and learn from it. The past is a place no longer inhabited, except with our imperfect memories. The future, for our children and grandchildren, should be the destination of choice. I do not have a magical solution or elixir, I wish I did. I do know that organisations such as the Historical Enquires Team and the Ombudsman’s office are blunt instruments too narrowly focused to use in a search for truth and justice for societal challenges. While they are simply doing what is required by mandate and law, they raise expectations that cannot be met, and distract from the task of finding a societal resolution to the past.

Following the 8 May 2007 commencement of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the strong sense that Northern Ireland is now in a better place, many people rhetorically asked “What was it all
about, then?” I want to avoid that being said of any failure of the policing change in Northern Ireland; therefore my plea is that Government, political and community leaders re-double efforts to establish the architecture and the mechanisms that can deal with these difficult, seemingly intractable issues of the past, from a more global vista. I do believe that all the pieces are in place to deliver the new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland, but that issues of the past have established a barrier in the road toward re-establishing the trust necessary for fully achieving that goal.

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