It was hoped that the Patten reforms would herald a new start for policing in Northern Ireland, but, argues Denis Bradley, the PSNI remains burdened with its legacy from the old RUC. Denis is a former vice-chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board and co-chair of the Consultative Group on the Past. He was talking in the latest Forward Together podcast from the Holywell Trust.
“In the setting-up of the PSNI, the new service inherited, carried with it, the deeds of the RUC. That was done at the time to placate unionism, which is understandable, I wouldn’t have any great problem with that,” says Denis.
“The difficulty with it was that it was taking the past with it, in the sense that it had to deal with the past while being part of the conflict itself. That left it in a bit of a bind. That goes through right to the present day. It may have been better to not carry the deeds of the RUC with it, but we are where we are, as they say.”
Denis adds: “The other thing is that in the establishment of it, the RUC overhung the new policing service. So does the conflict, in the sense that neither did militant republicanism totally go away, with dissidents breaking off from the Provisional IRA. Their whole base was within nationalist working class areas and they kept their presence there, through things like the Omagh bomb and right up to the present day.
“While one of the most prominent people in the whole Provisional organisation, Martin McGuinness – and within the new political establishment – described them as ‘militarily pathetic’, they also carried a threat – and the main threat was against the new policing service, on the grounds that they claimed that it wasn’t a fully re-established, reconstituted, independent service.”
This created serious challenges for the PSNI, made worse, argues Denis, by the lack of any tradition or culture of organised policing in working class nationalist areas. Though, he stresses, these areas were lawful, they were not used to a uniformed police service being present. This combination of factors meant that “policing in these communities was not what it should have been”. That should have led to a heavy concentration of recruiting police officers from those communities, along with a strong commitment to community policing in those areas – but that did not happen, says Denis.
Yet, despite this, community satisfaction with policing in Northern Ireland is by international standards unusually high – at around 80%, which is comparable to that across Europe. “Certainly higher than in some other countries, such as America,” explains Denis.
The PSNI remains a difficult force to lead. Chief constables who had a background in the RUC have found it impossible to shake off their association with the past, while all but one of those who came from England have been accused of naivety in their understanding of the complications of Northern Ireland society. Denis believes that only by tackling the inherent problems that he described can these leadership challenges be overcome. “I don’t think it matters so much who is the chief constable, because he or she is only one person.”
Denis praises the PSNI for improving community relationships across much of Northern Ireland. “I think that they have worked reasonably hard, and partially successfully, integrating themselves into communities. I get good feedback at times.” Denis adds: “I don’t believe the middle class in any country has difficulty with policing…. Where you find problems in most countries is in working class communities.”
Structures of accountability should mean that the PSNI is challenged to improve policing in Northern Ireland’s working class areas, including nationalist areas. But instead, says Denis, the response is “if we go in and do what you are asking us to do, we will get ourselves killed”.
Policing anywhere works though a combination of trust and what might be termed ‘dispassionate engagement’, argues Denis. “If the community it is policing has more trust and respect in it than it has mistrust and disrespect – if the balance is 50, 60, 70% -then policing can tackle most things – they will take the community with it, in good times and in bad.
“If, on the other hand, it is 30, or 40, or 15 or 20% – a minority feeling of trust – then in good times or bad that community will not liaise with, will not communicate with, policing in ways that are positive and successful in policing terms. If you scale that up into situations where there is organised crime, where people use guns, use drugs, or are very ruthless and violent, then you have the clash – between whether the community has trust in the police enough as a humane body, but also as a professional body. Then that police force will be more powerful and more successful than the organised crime.
“Dublin is a perfect example of that. Where communities have been more frightened of the drug gangs than the police, with young people more attracted to crime gangs than to the police.” It then becomes necessary for the police to engage with communities to generate the respect necessary to defeat crime gangs.
While the PSNI are dealing with the legacy of the RUC, and the complaints of its operations as a partisan force, there is also the legacy of Troubles killings. With the UK government apparently committed to avoiding new prosecutions of soldiers, this has again become extremely contentious.
Denis is wary about moves to set up another committee looking at the past, given the work that he and Archbishop Lord Robin Eames were engaged in when co-chairing the Consultative Group on the Past, which contained just three people. “One of my fears around the Stormont House Agreement, which came about ten years after the Consultative Group on the Past, in its management of how to deal with the past has about 30, or 40, or 60 people involved, in the sense that each aspect has more and more people involved, including a very strong representation from our political parties.
“I have never been of the opinion that the political parties are capable of dealing with the past. They will argue, they will fight over it and they will come up with reasons for not dealing with things. But they will never deal with it. There will always be a stand-off.” The Consultative Group addressed this by concluding that the two governments – the UK and Ireland – would have to resolve the problems.
“The second thing in dealing with the past is to be incredibly sensitive towards the victims. But in dealing with victims you must never allow the victims to be the leaders around this. There will always be divisions. They have different narratives and different needs and different passions. So you can never allow the victims to be the leaders in this. And to some extent victims have been politicised.”
Those comments were made by Denis several weeks before the arguments emerged that are now holding up the payment of pensions to Troubles survivors. But the deadlock certainly seems to vindicate his observations.
This latest podcast in the second Forward Together series is available here on the website of peace and reconciliation charity Holywell Trust. It is funded by the Community Relations Council’s Media Grant Scheme
Disclaimer: This project has received support from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council which aims to promote a pluralist society characterised by equity, respect for diversity, and recognition of interdependence. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Community Relations Council.
Paul Gosling is author of ‘A New Ireland’, ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and other books. He is part-time policy advisor to Sinead McLaughlin MLA, the SDLP’s economy spokesperson.