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The Police Reform in Northern Ireland: A lot still remains to be done

September 19th, 2019
by:Peadar O’ Cearnaigh
located in:Ireland
tags:Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland, Patten Report, police reform

As well as bringing peace to Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement marked the start of new relations between Irish republicans, British unionists, and the Irish and British governments. However, the controversial issue of policing still had to be dealt with. Irish republicans had good reason not to trust the police, known then as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Members of the RUC came predominantly from the British unionist community - a community mainly represented by the Democratic Unionist Party.

The Patten Report into policing in Northern Ireland, published on September 9 1999, sought to change that, and presented 175 recommendations. While some recommendations have had a positive effect, there is still quite a bit of work left to do.

Since its foundation in 1922, RUC was known to some as “Unionism’s armed wing.” Catholic membership was supposed to make up one third of the new force but it never exceeded 20 percent. By 1936, RUC was reported to be partisan and that it was abusing its powers. Its early days clearly weren’t covered in glory.

Collusion with loyalist paramilitaries

1968 was a year of civil rights marches across the world. In addition to marching for international causes, civil rights protesters in the north of Ireland marched to challenge the prevalent anti-Catholic discrimination. These protesters met the ugly side of RUC, who baton-charged their peaceful marches and stood back while loyalist mobs attacked them.

1969 saw a repeat of RUC violence, which ultimately led to what became known as the Battle of the Bogside in Derry city. The battle lasted for two days and the fighting was so intense that the Irish government set up field hospitals south of the border. The British government imposed internment in the north of Ireland between 1971 and 1975 to round up members of the IRA. However, in its early days, the intelligence provided to the army by the RUC was faulty, and so very few IRA members were actually arrested. It achieved little more than anger in the Irish republican community and a boost in IRA recruitment.

The families of victims have strongly believed for some time that there was collusion between loyalist terrorists and RUC. Indeed, former members of loyalist terror groups admitted as much, as did Northern Ireland’s police ombudsman. Thus, post conflict, the new police force would have a lot of work to do to convince Catholics and Irish republicans that it had changed. By 1998, Catholic membership of RUC had fallen to below 10 percent.

Some hope around police reform begins at last

The Patten Report was carried out by the former Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten. One of its most notable changes was renaming RUC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Patten acknowledged the historical policing problems in Northern Ireland, stating that, “The roots of the problem go back to the very foundation of the state. Since 1922 and the establishment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (in part drawn from the ranks of the old Royal Irish Constabulary), the composition of the police has been disproportionately Protestant and Unionist.”

Slow to support the PSNI, Sinn Féin eventually got behind it in January 2007. This was a major step forward, and paved the way for power sharing with its former foe, the DUP. 

Forward looking recommendations with a need for caution

Today, the PSNI is arguably the most accountable police force in the EU. The Patten Report’s 175 recommendations were made under 13 broad headings. The main recommendations concerned:

  1. Culture, ethos and symbols

The newly named PSNI did adopt a new badge and symbols entirely free from any association with either the British or Irish states. No flag would fly from police buildings, apart from that of the PSNI.

2. Human Rights

Policing in Northern Ireland was to focus on a human rights-based approach with a new Code of Ethics to be put in place and to integrate the European Convention on Human Rights. However, despite developing human rights programmes, the high court held that the PSNI were breaching the human rights of the families of victims of loyalist terror group killings.

3. Accountability

A new Policing Board was established to hold the Chief Constable and police to account. Responsibility for policing was given to the Northern Ireland Executive with the exception of matters of national security.

This board monitors PSNI compliance with the 1998 Human Rights Act. But it has faced a number of setbacks. Several power-sharing governments have collapsed since 1998, thus appointing members to the board proved difficult. Furthermore, theboard was without a human rights adviser for almost two years.

Composition and recruitment of the police service

The quota system introduced by Patten guaranteed that year-on-year, 50 percent of new recruits would be Catholic. The quota system of recruitment was successful and lead to an increase in police officers from the Catholic community. By 2011, Catholics made up 31.5 percent of the force. However, the quota system was abandoned in 2011. Had it continued until today, Catholic membership would have reached 50 percent.

Worryingly, just 8 of the 68 senior officer positions are Catholic, and Catholics now make up only 21 percent of those training to become police officers.

Legacy Inquiries

Families of the victims of collusion between loyalist terrorists and the British state are still demanding justice. So the British and Irish governments, along with the north’s main political parties, announced a way of investigating the past through the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) on December 23, 2014. 

One campaign group, Time for Truth Campaign (TFTC), wants the British and Irish governments to implement and adequately resource the SHA legacy mechanisms. TFTC demands adequate resourcing of the Office of the Police Ombudsman to allow it to complete outstanding historical investigations.

The PSNI claimed to have 45 million documents relating to legacy killings, but that it didn’t have the resources to process them. Additionally the PSNI have had to apologise for not handing over documents relating to the murder of Catholic civilians at the hands of loyalist terror group the UDA.

Furthermore, a Court of Appeals in the north of Ireland found the PSNI did not have “the required independence” to carry a legacy investigation.

Allegations of harassment

The PSNI are increasingly using Stop and Search measures more than in any part of the UK. Stop and search, however, leads to significantly less arrests in the north of Ireland. Studies also show that 16 year-old Irish Catholics and republicans are “more likely to perceive PSNI stop and search as a form of unnecessary harassment than their Protestants counterparts.” They also see the PSNI in a more negative light when stopped and searched.

What the PSNI to do now to make it fully accountable

Despite its improved accountability, the PSNI still has some work to do for people to fully accept it has changed. Renaming RUC and the removal of symbols and emblems was a start. But more is needed. The Office of the Police Ombudsman needs to be adequately resourced to allow it conduct investigations into killings that occurred during the conflict. It has a huge backlog to deal with.

Additionally, constructive dialogue with Irish Catholics and republican communities needs to take place as trust levels are low. The potentially catastrophic effects of a no-deal Brexit and a hard border means this is necessary sooner rather than later. And as Patten promised the change that so many desired in 1999, it must deliver that change in 2019.

Article written by:
Peadar O’ Cearnaigh
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the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 marked the start of new relations between Irish republicans, British unionists, and the Irish and British governments.
The newly named PSNI did adopt a new badge and symbols entirely free from any association with either the British or Irish states. No flag would fly from police buildings, apart from that of the PSNI.
Despite its improved accountability, the PSNI still has some work to do for people to fully accept it has changed.
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