Northern Ireland has lessons on police governance for England

David Cameron was very lucky he wasn’t addressing the recalled Commons after a fourth night of serious violence. But government fortunes still greatly depend on what happens now on English streets.  MPs were able to  unite around the quickly accepted wisdom that the police went in too lightly for at least two nights, without making a tiresome and unhelpful political crisis over it. Of course if the rioting returns, the crisis atmosphere will return.

The champion of localism Simon Jenkins used the easing of tension to show a sense of perspective .

 Comment abhors banality and the smashed windows and fires that consumed a few London streets have had to be awarded deeper significance. London’s Burning, cried the headlines. It was anarchy, yob rule. The increasingly tabloid BBC compared Croydon with Belfast’s Falls Road, taunting the government to bring in troops, so as to make it seem weak for not doing so. The parallel drawn between a fractured Irish community and London’s suburban opportunists was hyperbole and media hysteria.


Well, I bet the Falls Road was a lot safer than Ealing Broadway the other night, but I take his broad point. In Northern Ireland I guess there are plenty of people of diverse opinions who are looking on enviously at the record of London arrests already. All the same it mustn’t be forgotten that NI is very different.  The roots of unrest remain very political even though the methods for dealing with it are to a great extent community based, as they are in England. Even though the depoliticisation of handling street unrest has progressed more slowly than we might have hoped – after all with a coalition Executive what political aim is there left to struggle for? – our system of police governance might be commended to the English who are badly divided over the Conservative plan for elected police commissioners.  A Policing Board with a majority of elected members  in proportionate numbers but with lay leadership, has much to commend it .

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London