Thoughts on Policing

The grenade attack on the police last week created considerable concern and then faded relatively quickly. Stephen Nolan was extremely exercised for a number of days and one senior police officer suggested that the “manner in which they do business” will change as a result. The problems for police dealing with terrorists was again highlighted with the suggestion that republican dissidents were willing to shoot at the (unarmed) Gardai.

The problem for police forces dealing with terrorists is extremely complex and there are no simple answers. The old RUC was trained to a significant degree in anti terrorism policing and the PSNI, despite their community policing role have at least some of these skills. The likes of the road block in Meigh in South Armagh last year where the police were ordered not to attempt to engage the terrorists suggested difficulties for the police in dealing with terrorists.

Much of the problem is that police officers are actually civilians and are not trained to use force in the same way as soldiers. Recently the it was suggested that if a Mumbai style attack occurred in the UK the police would have to call on the SAS and that the police were being given more powerful weapons. However, as was suggested at the time police officers are trained to control violent situations and minimise risk to themselves and others. This makes them less able to thwart terrorists. The suggestion is that soldiers move forward and take ground, accepting causalities as part and parcel of the process of defeating the threat. Some SAS officers have suggested having military typed units prepared to respond to terrorists.

It is very likely that 20 years ago here in Northern Ireland a terrorist would not have cycled up to three police officers in West Belfast, thrown a hand grenade at them and cycled off. Had s/he been so foolish there is little doubt they would have shot by the soldiers accompanying the RUC. Unlike police officers, soldiers are trained for prolonged periods to respond to such incidents by firing back: the cycling terrorist would almost certainly have been shot repeatedly by the soldiers. Furthermore the terrorist, knowing this would have been unlikely to try the attack in the first place. Similarly the terrorists who set up a check point in Meigh would have been highly concerned about the prospect of being overwhelmed by much more numerous, better armed and properly trained real soldiers.

In spite of the above the prospect of the army being deployed back on the streets is unlikely to be a helpful idea; nor indeed would the increased militarisation of routine police work be anything other than a retrograde step.

The simple reality is that the dissident republicans want to bring the army back onto the streets. That does not mean that the army returning to the streets is by definition a bad idea but it does mean that if they do so then a propaganda victory will have been handed to the dissidents. Furthermore although the army or increased militarisation of the police could provide reassurance it could also increase division of the police from the more difficult rural border and working class urban republican areas in which they face the biggest threats. In addition if the police ,with or without the army, fired at and injured let alone killed an innocent bystander it would undo vast amounts of community acceptance of the police. In London it must be remembered that what seems to have been incompetence rather than malice in the death of Jean Charles de Menezes caused massive anxiety and concern from the public. A similar disaster in Belfast would be much worse for the PSNI’s reputation.

Even if the current police fired at and killed a terrorist in the very process of committing a crime there is a danger, despite the relative unpopularity of the dissidents that the dead terrorist would become a martyr. The situation with the incompetent would be murderers Sean South and Feargal O’Hanlon is analogous. They were part of an unpopular terrorist campaign; out numbered (5 to 1) and out gunned the police officers they attacked and yet when killed by the police officers they became the objects of popularity in some quarters rather than contempt which one might expect considering their cowardly, murderous and completely incompetent plan.

The republican movement has a major responsibility in the current difficulties. Although claiming to support the police they seem loathe to accept any form of security policing or intelligence gathering on terrorists, denouncing it as either a return to the old days of RUC Special Branch or else MI5 taking over policing. However, unless the police use intelligence and arrest the terrorists there is a high probability that they will continue to increase in their dangerousness and prevent the very community policing which SF claim to want. As such the mainstream republican movement, although it may not be able to bring itself to say so publicly would be very wise to support intelligence gathering.

A further and possible greater difficulty is likely to arise if (and sadly quite possibly when) the police do fire back and kill a terrorist. McGuinness might have been lauded by some for calling the murderers of Constable Carroll traitors to Ireland. However, more difficult for him and actually more significant would be to call a dead dissident terrorist, shot by the security forces (north or south) also a traitor to Ireland. That might be too hard for him or if it did might strengthen the dissident republicans.

Unionists can of course demand tougher security measures much more easily. However, they must also know that such demands are potentially problematic. Increased policing unless it 100% accurately targets only the terrorists (an impossibility) and even if it did so, will very likely alienate segments of the community who are least happy with the police.

The police must also know the problems they face. The continual mantra of community policing seems naïve when terrorists are throwing military weapons at them. However, a recourse to a more paramilitary type of policing would undoubtedly be both a backwards step and would play into the dissidents hands.

It was always known that in the process of bringing most of the paramilitary organisations into the tent that some would be left outside and have to be dealt with by a policing response. However, with neither the loyalist nor the republican terrorists does there seem to have been a coherent plan as to when it would be decided that this policing response be activated. Nor it seems was there a plan for the aggressiveness of this response nor how it would be put into practice. The lack of planning in this regard seems to be giving the dissidents the initiative and at the moment at least, unless there is a huge intelligence breakthrough, it looks as though the dissidents, though vanishingly unlikely to achieve their aims, seem likely to hold that initiative.


  • The Raven

    …Nolan needs more than just a few days’ exercise…

  • Mark McGregor


    I’d caution against treating that article on changes in ‘rules of engagement’ as legitimate. There was not a single source credited, the southern Irish media has not picked it up and for such a claimed major shift it hasn’t been noted by a single member of the Garda or Irish political establishment.

    Also, the Garda have a several very well armed sections that are tasked to deal with various republican groups.

  • Mark McGregor

    BTW: well done for managing to mention the word ‘loyalist’ in the last paragraph.

    That balanced the whole blog.

  • Turgon

    Fair point and I think it is scandalous that the police have not taken a much harder line against the loyalists. This is even more unacceptable when one considers that there would be likely to be many fewer political problems with going after loyalists than going after republicans.

    The point of the blog was to highlight the issues surrounding dissident republicans and the policing response. Your point is, however, well made that the police simply need to start arresting loyalists. It is utterly unacceptable that people can be supposedly known UDA / UVF “brigadiers” and yet not arrested and questioned. Membership of the these organisations is in itself a criminal offence.

  • Granni Trixie

    An insightful analysis Turgon, esp re a coherent plan for policing post troubles. Do not think however that you indicate understanding of why people in the ‘heartlands’ of the troubles have a legacy of not trusting the police. Do you accept for instance, as I do, that what is called ‘collusion’ was part of the murky underbelly of the troubles?

    But I would not be too dispondent. By coincidence, this last week I was taking (independantly) to a PSNI officer and a communty worker from the lower Falls about a mutual project. It was obvious that they respected each other. The PSNI officer in particualr appreciated that the local people had helped him make connections with ethnic minorities who traditionally do not turn to police. But it was not one way traffic but I would not expect that that community worker would be an intelligence gatherer. I just want to emphasise that genuinely good relationships prevailed and that I, who have always supported ‘law and order’, was surprised and nregard this as progress.

    I once made a point to the Ophsal Commission (remember that – initially “Initiative 92”?) – that people in WB are not anarcists – they actually want law and order….and that when SF accepted policing, we would have turned a significant corner. This was in 1992-3 – in hindsight was I not right?

    Having said all that – I do not have easy words about the content of a plan for policing post-troubles except that I think it is important to learn from mistakes of the past – your own ref to the man killed by police on the train,proves the point. What lessons from NI?


    The above was a series of RTE programmes done on members of the gardai murdered by the IRA criminal gang.
    Contrary to what Turgon believes, the tradition of murdering members of the gardai was well established IRA policy.
    • Detective Sergeant Dennis “Dinny” O’Brien was gunned down at his Dublin home on 9 September 1942 by an IRA death squad led by its “Chief of Staff”, Charlie Kerins, who got a suspended sentence and a GAA club named after him for his bold blow for Irish freedom
    • Det Garda MJ Walsh was murdered by the IRA in Ballyjamesduff on 30 September 1942, when the parents of notorious IRA bomber Gerard Tuite were married.
    • Harry White, uncle of infamous Adams’ side kick Danny Morrison, together with Kerry gunman Maurice O’Neill, shot dead Det Garda Mordant for doing his job

    These were deliberate murders and were part of IRA policy. Thanks to Garda penetration of the IRA during and after the war, the IRA later changed their policy of murdering gardai for cosmetic reasons. However, the above link shows they still get off on it. As do the rabid comments of some of their supporters here.

    If the IRA were really revolutionaries, they would blast all and sundry into oblivion. However, as they are just unskilled no hopers on the make, they have to compromise.
    One more thing needs to be said about the Southerners. They are so fickle. They were outraged at Dinny O’Brien’s murder and turned out for his funeral in huge numbers. But they also gave his killer, Kerins, a huge send off. When Det Sgt Jerry McCabe was murdered on the direct orders of PIRA High Command, Limerick gave him the biggest funeral since Sean South’s. But then Martin Ferris, an elected TD and convicted criminal, was able to give the killers a hero’s welcome when they were released before doing their full time.

  • White Horse


    There is some distance to be gone from these policing problems for both loyalist and republican parmilitaries to a position which would justify negotiating with them, giving them concessions that cannot be justified except in undermining the political situation, which would then undermine the moral ethos that underpins the political situation, make them come back for more concessions, and thus edge us further back to their ideal situation.

    Why go down that road? Clearly they have no issue that could not be resolved by the republicans, and indeed loyalists, producing better politicians who would have strategies to achieve their goals or to make them understand why not. For republicans, it seems to me that this is an issue of confidence dressed up as a grievance based on the denial of something that they say that only they can achieve. Their arguments are as hollow as the secret strategising that has grounded the ship.

  • joeCanuck


    Maybe there is a coherent plan and we just haven’t been told what it is. I wouldn’t expect the police to divulge operational details.
    They have managed to thwart many attacks and have quite a bunch of “dissident” republicans jailed or on remand. The “Brigadiers” are another matter. It might have made sense for them to have been given some time to come in from the cold but, even though they have supposedly given up their arms, they are still killing people with guns, “sanctioned” by one or more “Brigadiers”. Their time should be up.

  • RepublicanStones

    The element of the Garda you’re talking about (the ERU) are sometimes supported by the ARW, aside from receiving training.

  • JoeJoe

    The greatest thing that can be done to beat the dissidents, is to keep the 50:50 recruitment going until the force is representative of the community. I realise there is no talking to hardened dissidents, but the more the police represent nationalists aswell as unionists, the fewer young people will fall for the spin that they are ‘British forces of occupation’.

  • joeCanuck


    The police being able to walk the beat is a big advance. In past times if a person was seen going into a police station, they might have become suspect and faced death. Now you can just say “Good afternoon officer, you should keep on eye on young Joe from Patterson Street.”

  • Sorry JoeJoe. Don’t think you are right. Tom Williams was hanged for shooting a Catholic copper; Joe Cahill got off for reasons we won’t go into here.
    As Catholics almost always be easier targets than Protestants, I will leave you to figure out the rest.

  • joeCanuck

    And just in case there is a Patterson Street and a young Joe living there, usual cinematic disclaimer that all persons and places are entirely fictitious and any similarity is entirely coincidental.

  • joeCanuck

    Once a mope, always a mope, it would seem.

  • Good post, Turgon. I just hope you are wrong about the dissidents having the initiative but I believe you are right.

    One thing that is likely to happen during the era of more spending cuts is an increase in crime. More crime equals more criminals who are potential recruits for the dissident terrorists. Whichever way you cut it, the situation looks as if it is going to get a lot more dangerous.

  • Comrade Stalin

    JoeJoe, what you’re saying there is that people will not support the police if there are too many prods in it. That idea needs to be specifically and strongly rejected and we need to stand up to people who make that claim, not aquiesce in their bigotry.

    I don’t think young people are, or ever were, drawn to the IRA or other organizations because of high minded political ideology. People are drawn into organizations like that if they are disenfranchised or marginalized – one way or another. Politics adds to the mix but organizations which are sustained in this manner exist in every country in the world.

  • Carrickmoreman

    More crime=more criminals and could = more informers for the security services.