|Part one of a major new study: can Northern Ireland have a police service acceptable to both Catholic and Protestant commmunities?
Police reform in Northern Ireland has been as much a bone of contention as the decommissioning argument for the peace process. And like decommissioning it breaks down along opposing religious and political lines.
A major new work into the RUC's relationship with all the population of Northern Ireland has attempted to clarify the main issues at stake and offer proposals for a new and more acceptable policing system which will have a majority support from the whole community.
In their work Policing Northern Ireland: Proposals for a new start, professors John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary identify the demand by a significant proportion of Catholics (both republican and nationalist) for substantial changes to the present policing structure as the minimum way forward.
But while they recognise that some Protestants particularly working class urban Protestants do not fully trust the RUC, the Protestant community in general does not favour significant constitutional and political change for the RUC. Today they examine the issue of historical nationalist and unionist relationships with the RUC.
Tomorrow, in the second part, they will look at issues including who should be in a reformed police force; how can the police be demilitarised; how to deal with the symbols of division and put forward a model for reform that will create a democratically accountable and acceptable police force. Catholics (both republican and nationalist) for substantial changes to the present policing structure as the minumum way forward.
But while they recognise that some Protestants particularly working class urban Protestants do not fully trust the RUC, the Protestant community in general does not favour significant constitutional and political change for the RUC. Today they examine the issue of historical nationalist and unionist relationships with the RUC.
Tomorrow, they consider who should be in a reformed police force; demilitarisation; how to deal with the symbols of division, and put forward a model for reform that will create a democratically accountable and acceptable police force.
THE RUC was formally established in June 1922. From its inception it was not simply charged with ordinary policing duties. The Westminster parliament devolved responsibility for internal security to the new parliament in Belfast, and so the RUC was given the job of defending the union against all types of nationalist.
This fact helps to explain why in the 1920s there were more than four times as many police officers per capita in Northern Ireland as there were in England and Scotland.
From the outset the RUC was armed and paramilitary in character, unlike police forces in Great Britain, or even the new police in the Irish Free State which also were formed in a civil war, but had the advantage of being legitimate in the eyes of most of the people they policed.
To assist it, the RUC was equipped with some of the most draconian police powers ever passed in a liberal democracy.
These were contained in the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act of 1922, renewed annually until 1928, then for five years until 1933, and then made permanent.
The act gave the government the right to intern people without trial which it did between 1922 and 1925, between 1938 and 1946, and between 1956 and 1961 to arrest people without warrants, to issue curfews, and to prohibit inquests.
It included two notorious catchall clauses that allowed the government to use the act's sweeping powers in any possible scenario.
Other laws, notably the Public Order Act (1951) and the Flags and Emblems Act (1954), enabled the government to control non-violent forms of political opposition, and effectively outlawed the public symbolic display of nationalist allegiance among the minority population.
The RUC contravened the standard norm in legitimate liberal democracies that the police exercise a semi-autonomous or arm's-length relationship with civil and political authorities.
Its senior officers were subordinate in practice to the political direction of the Northern Ireland government.
From 1921 until 1972 one party, the UUP, composed the entire cabinet with the exception of one ministerial appointment in 1969, its cabinets were exclusively composed of Protestants; and between 1921 and 1969, 93 per cent of the party's Stormont MPs were members of the Orange Order at the time of their election.
It would be astonishing if any police service could have preserved its autonomy from political interference given this level of political monopoly and continuity.
The RUC was closely supervised in particular by the Ministry of Home Affairs, whose top officials, according to one source, were 'strident defenders of Protestant interests and whose policies with regard to law and order were sometimes purely political and biased against Catholics'.
This lack of police autonomy was condemned by the London-based National Council for Civil Liberties in a 1936 report.
The report had little impact, as was apparent when the first Labour politicians to intervene in Northern Ireland 33 years later declared themselves 'stunned' by the lack of police independence from the ruling UUP.
As Roland Moyle, parliamentary private secretary to James Callaghan in 1969-70, recalled, "The way the old Home Affairs department in Northern Ireland ran the police, my God, I mean the police were the creatures of the mini-aristocracy."
The historical record suggests, rather unconvincingly, that the RUC might have got off to a more balanced beginning.
A committee established in 1922 to organise the new police recommended, perhaps surprisingly, that it be representative of the population, that one third be Catholics, drawn in part from the ranks of the RIC.
However, proportionality never materialised. Catholic representation peaked at 21 per cent of the RUC in 1923, and fell to 17 per cent by 1927, and to 10 per cent by the outbreak of the present round of conflict in 1969.
Nationalists did not apply to fill the official target for a number of reasons, including opposition to the state, fear of intimidation, and fear of ostracism from their own community.
There was also considerable unionist pressure on the government to ignore the committee's recommendation, and no serious attempt was made to recruit Catholics.
Ministers simply argued, as we have seen that unionists of goodwill still do, that the blame for low numbers of Catholics lay with nationalist leaders, who failed to encourage nationalists to apply.
Low Catholic representation, the Orange presence, the existence of the Specials and inter-recruitment between the Specials and the RUC, all reinforced the impression among Catholics that the police were, as a group of; academics described them in the late 1980s, 'the armed wing of unionism'.
They were seen as the successors of the RIC, but subject to the more overt partisan influences of local unionism.
The one-sided composition of the force also contributed to an internal unionist culture that would act as a further barrier to the future recruitment of Catholics.
The partiality of the RUC and the Specials and protests about that partiality are widely regarded as having been a significant factor in the events precipitating the current conflict.
When civil rights marchers in October 1968 refused to be cowed by an order from the Minister of Home Affairs to keep within Catholic areas of Derry/Londonderry, tensions escalated.
The RUC then ran amok and attacked demonstrators in front of television cameras.
On another occasion, in January 1969, marchers being escorted by the police were ambushed at Burntollet bridge by a loyalist mob which included members of the RUC.
Most seriously, the RUC and Specials clashed with Catholic protesters in Derry/Londonderry in August of the same year, and subsequently invaded and damaged persons and property in what became known as the Battle of the Bogside.
THE reforms to the RUC, as well as subsequent, mostly minor, reforms, were not without consequence. Academic and other accounts of the police note a significant improvement in the quality of policing from the 1970s. Party political depoliticisation was particularly successful.
The UUP's control over policing was ended, and the RUC's leadership increasingly prided itself on its belief that it was above politics.
By the end of the 1980s the Chief Constable, Jack Hermon, was refusing even to meet with unionist politicians lest it appear to compromise the police's neutrality.
There were also advances in professionalism, the code word for impartiality. While the pre-1969 police had shown little enthusiasm for tackling loyalist protests, the RUC came to demonstrate considerable effectiveness in policing loyalist protests against the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 and against the rerouting of Orange parades away from predominantly nationalist districts after 1996.
One consequence of this greater impartiality was that police officers and their families were petrol-bombed from their homes in some predominantly Protestant districts during the anti-Anglo-Irish Agreement protests, and again in the mid-1990s.
One officer was killed by a loyalist mob in Ballymoney in 1997, and another died from injuries suffered during an Orange Order protest in Portadown in 1998.
Moreover, by the mid-1990s, the RUC could also point to impressive mop-up rates against loyalist paramilitaries.
Between January 1994 and February 1998, 2,372 loyalists were arrested compared to 1,463 republicans, and 42 loyalists were charged with murder compared with 24 republicans.
These changes, however, while they have earned the police some animosity from loyalists, particularly of the Orange Order persuasion, have not succeeded in their crucial aim of winning them legitimacy among nationalists.
Instead, by the 1990s, as some wags put it, the police were merely considered 'equal-opportunity harassers'.
WHY did the RUC fail to win support from nationalists after the 1970s, despite apparently extensive and significant reforms? Two fundamental and related reasons immediately suggest themselves. One stemmed from the lack of a political agreement on the constitutional arrangements for the region, and the other from the presence of violent conflict and its consequences.
The reforms also took place in the context of an increasingly violent struggle between republican paramilitaries and the security forces.
This had several damaging consequences for police-nationalist relations. First, it meant that even if the law was enforced wholly 'impartially' it would still be enforced disproportionately on nationalists, as they were more likely to challenge the state's laws and to generate republican paramilitaries.
Nationalists were disproportionately searched, arrested and convicted.
Catholics were disproportionately the victims of plastic bullets fired by both the British Army and the RUC. While internment operated with police and army arrests between 1971 and 1975, 2,060 republicans were detained compared to 109 loyalists.
In the period between 1969 and 1989, while the security forces the British Army, the UDR and the RUC killed far fewer republican paramilitaries (123) than numbers of their own were killed by republicans (847), they killed almost 10 times as many republican paramilitaries as loyalist paramilitaries (13), and almost six times as many Catholic civilians (149) as Protestant civilians (25).
Had the RUC been flawlessly professional, this differential impact of the security forces on the Catholic population would nevertheless have adversely affected their relations with nationalists.
The violence of the 1970s also prompted security minded, rather than reform-minded, responses from the authorities.
The security situation also led the UK government eventually to resume using the police in a public order and indeed militaristic role in predominantly nationalist areas.
The RUC was rearmed and remilitarised within a few months of having been disarmed. Increasingly, police barracks were permanently fortified.
From 1971 until 1976 the RUC played a subordinate role to the British Army in security policy and action, but then the British government introduced a policy of 'police primacy' as part of a strategy of 'Ulsterisation' and 'normalisation' in which the RUC took on the leadership role in combating the IRA, although the British Army remained in a back-up position.
The government was anxious that its role in Northern Ireland should be externally regarded as impartial and legitimate, and it may also have been anxious to reduce losses of army personnel.
It was thought that the British Army's vanguard position made it easier for the IRA to argue it was involved in a war of liberation against a foreign army, and that this argument would be more ideologically difficult to advance if the IRA confronted a local police force.
The RUC therefore underwent another significant expansion after 1976, comprising 7,700 regulars and 4,800 reservists by 1982.
Police primacy was accompanied by a policy of 'criminalisation', aimed at demonstrating that those engaged in paramilitary activities were merely criminals rather than political activists.
The success of this policy was entirely dependent on the government being seen to be relying on normal legal processes.
It continued, however, to rely on the juryless (Diplock) courts and the extraordinary powers of arrest it had granted to all the security forces under the 1973 legislation, and to derogate from the European Convention on Human Rights on the grounds that there was an emergency.
When internment without trial was abandoned, there was a corresponding increased reliance on confessions, extracted by the RUC using dubious, to say the least, 'questioning' techniques on arrested suspects.
Criticism by Amnesty International and the government-appointed Bennett Committee resulted in an embarrassed Westminster government placing new controls on police conduct.
But in consequence, however, confessions were replaced by accomplice evidence as the key method of securing convictions in the face of politically disciplined paramilitaries.
By the early 1980s the RUC had cultivated the 'supergrass', a paramilitary who would implicate large numbers of his erstwhile colleagues in return for a new identity, relocation and substantial remuneration.
When 15 out of 25 supergrasses subsequently retracted their evidence (which led to the abandonment of this policing technique) it did nothing for Catholics' or nationalists' impression of the police or the judicial system in general although in fairness one must observe that the RUC produced loyalist as well as republican supergrasses.
There were also compelling allegations of a 'shoot to kill' policy practised by special units of the RUC against republican paramilitaries in the early 1980s.
Although an inquiry into these allegations produced evidence of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, the British Attorney General Sir Patrick Mayhew decided in 1988 that it would not be 'in the national interest' to prosecute certain RUC officers.
In August and September 1989, evidence that the files of IRA suspects had been given to loyalist paramilitaries who used them to carry out murders raised questions about the partiality of both the UDR and the RUC.
Nationalists were also antagonised by the RUC's role in forcing Orange parades through certain districts in the 1990s, particularly the Garvaghy Road in July 1996, and it does not seem to have helped its reputation that the RUC has also been willing to confront unionists and loyalists protesting against the rerouting of such parades.
For most nationalists the unfinished story of the murder of Robert Hamill exemplifies the reality of the RUC's relationships with their community: a tale, at best, of cowardly indifference on the part of police officers, and, at worst, of collusion in a sectarian atrocity, corruption of due legal process, and cover-up of a homicide.
In addition to these particular episodes, and despite 'normalisation', in nationalist areas the RUC continued to rely on military-style snatch operations and a counter-insurgency style of policing.
THIS brief review of the history of the RUC's relations with northern nationalists suggests that the absence of police legitimacy has been importantly connected with the absence of political legitimacy for Northern Ireland: nationalists have found the RUC unacceptable because it has been associated with and has defended unacceptable political arrangements, as was true of its precursor, the RIC.
In fact, northern nationalists have never been policed by services they regard as legitimate.
This history suggests that a political settlement is a necessary condition if there are to be police services that are acceptable to northern nationalists.
This does not mean, however, that a political settlement is a sufficient condition for northern nationalists to accept the police.
Rather, many nationalists regard the police, because of the way they have interacted with them since 1921, and more particularly since 1969, as part of an unacceptable political system which needs to be changed.
It is also their understanding that their politicians are signatories to an agreement that accepts this reasoning.
Review of the period since 1969 also suggests that violent conflict has erected tremendous obstacles to potentially worthwhile policing reforms.
On the one hand, conflict produced a heavy-handed security response that estranged nationalists further from the RUC.
On the other, violence from republican paramilitaries made it more difficult for the UK government and for moderate unionists to make concessions on policing reforms than might otherwise have been the case.
Fortunately, these two obstacles to constructing broadly acceptable police arrangements have been significantly eroded as a result of recent political developments.
On Good Friday, 1998, eight of Northern Ireland's most significant political parties, and the British and Irish governments, reached a comprehensive political agreement, that included a commitment to policing reform.
All major paramilitary organisations in the region are sustaining ceasefires as this book goes to press, and their political representatives who have significant electoral support, over 20 per cent of the electorate between them all, are committed to seeking political changes through exclusively democratic and peaceful methods.
The legacy of the conflict is still relevant, and is still reflected in the continuation of polarised attitudes on policing reform, but there is now an unprecedented opportunity to build a police service acceptable throughout the communities of nationalists, unionists and others.
The rest of this book offers our view on how this should be achieved.
AN overwhelming majority of unionists and Protestants support the RUC. Partisan unionists regard the RUC as their police, protectors of the Union. Other unionists, by contrast, sincerely regard the police as everyone's police. They are unionists of goodwill committed to treating Catholics as equal citizens of the Union. They mostly think that the police already meet the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement. In their eyes the police are already professional; effective and efficient; fair and impartial; free from partisan political control; tough but fair; tough on terrorists, be they republicans or loyalists; and tough on criminals.
Partisan unionists should not be surprised if nationalists complain that the RUC is partial that, after all, is how they see 'their police'. This chapter is therefore not directed at the views of such partisan unionists. Its target is those unionists of goodwill who see the police as generally impartial, professional and neutral an outlook they share with a minority of Catholics. It is they who need to be persuaded that their understanding of the RUC is incorrect; that the RUC, is currently constituted, is not everyone's police, and therefore does not fulfil the requirements of the new agreement. The Patten Commission also needs to be persuaded of these propositions.
THE simplest way of establishing what Northern nationalists think of the RUC is to hear and read what they say. Two political parties organise almost the entire nationalist vote in Northern Ireland: Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).
Sinn Fein is the more hardline of the two nationalist parties. In its republican analysis the RUC is a unionist as well as a sectarian police force, an instrument of unionist domination, a participant in the conflict rather than a neutral law enforcement agency.
Sinn Fein maintains that the RUC's members have been linked to the repression, torture and killing of nationalists, and it highlights the fact that RUC personnel have colluded with loyalist paramilitaries.
The RUC, in the words of Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey, is 'totally unacceptable to the entire nationalist people'. In Sinn Fein's analysis the RUC cannot be reformed, it must be disbanded. As one republican activist puts it, A reformed RUC would amount to nothing more than painting a smile on the face of a corpse...A totally reconstructed police force within the existing state is a non-starter.'
Nationalists in the SDLP use less forceful language they, after all, have always been constitutionalists, committed to the expression of Irish national self-determination by consent, to achieving a unified or agreed Ireland, by consent, and to reforming Northern Ireland, by consent.
The SDLP's elected officials often emphasise the enormous human price paid by police officers and their families during the violence of the last 30 years.
That does not, however, mean that they are tacit supporters of the RUC. On the contrary, the SDLP's spokespersons also claim that the RUC is unacceptable to nationalists.
They have done so consistently; none more so than Seamus Mallon MP, now Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, and for many years the party's spokesman on justice.
The SDLP emphasises that the police are not representative. Catholics comprise over 40 per cent of Northern Ireland's population, but make up just 7.5 per cent of the RUC, and not all of these Catholics are local Catholics, let alone nationalists.
The SDLP does not demand the 'disbanding' of the police but it does argue that policing issues cannot be resolved by 'minor adjustments to the status quo.
These views of Sinn Fein and the SDLP represent long-established policy positions, which the two parties regularly air in their manifestos, party literature, speeches and media interviews.
Alex Maskey's perspective is as representative of Sinn Fein's as Seamus Mallon's is representative of the SDLP's. We have read through these two parties' literature for signs that these views are overstated, or reactions to specific crises or episodes, but have found no evidence to sustain such interpretations.
On the contrary, they are typical. The official views of the two nationalist parties, which now average approximately 40 per cent of the vote between them in regional elections to the Westminster parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament, and local government districts, are utterly unambiguous: the RUC is unacceptable to nationalists.
Moreover, the two nationalist parties do not believe that their official views lose them any votes, if we are to judge by the incredulous reactions of their spokespersons when this suggestion is put to them.
MANY defenders of the status quo discount the unified nationalist rejection of the RUC. Unionists of goodwill often claim that 'many Catholics' or (less often) 'many nationalists' find the RUC acceptable, and that nationalist leaders exaggerate the degree of minority disgruntlement.
They often concur with one key argument of partisan unionists, particularly voluble within the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but which is also expressed by people who do not regard themselves as partisan unionists.
This argument is widely held within the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the United Kingdom Unionist Party (UKUP), the Conservative Party, the RUC and the Police Authority for Northern Ireland (PANI). It is short and simple: opposition to the RUC is primarily the result of republican terrorist intimidation.
Some academics think that the unacceptability of the RUC among Catholics is exaggerated. John Brewer, a sociologist at Queen's University Belfast, criticises what he describes as a 'divided society' model of policing. This model suggests that the police reflect the divisions in Northern Ireland with Protestants defending the police while Catholics attack them. Brewer claims, by contrast, that there are important 'intra-communal' fissures on policing which this 'divided society' model overlooks. His research suggests that not all Protestants like the police, but also that significant numbers of Catholics respect the RUC.
There is plainly a deep polarisation here. Sinn Fein claims that the RUC is 'totally unacceptable' to nationalists, while the claim that the RUC has broad support across the two communities is used by unionists of goodwill to argue that substantive reforms of the RUC are not needed. Conor Cruise O'Brien takes a characteristically harder unionist line: he maintains that because opposition to the RUC springs mainly from IRA manipulation, implementing any reforms in effect constitutes appeasement which would be not only wrong, but ultimately also either futile or, worse, perverse. In O'Brien's opinion, the demand for reform is an orchestrated tactic to demoralise the RUC before a resumption of republicans' military campaign.
Unionists of goodwill generally suggest that what is really needed is not police reform but for Catholic and nationalist leaders to support the police, sit on the Police Authority, and encourage Catholics to become police officers. In their eyes the nationalists claim that the RUC, and the political agencies that oversee it, is largely composed of Protestants and unionists is a self-fulfilling prophecy, the responsibility of nationalists themselves. If only nationalists would participate in recruitment and in holding the RUC to account, they would gain the input they currently deny themselves. Hardline unionists think the self-fulfilling prophecy is entirely conscious: nationalist policiticans know that their failure to participate in police bodies or to encourage their followers to become police officers discredits the Union, and therefore advances the prospects of a united Ireland.
A political settlement would undoubtedly aid 'normalisation', though it is wrong to imply that Northern Ireland once had 'normal', that is, legitimate, impartial and professional, policing. We agree that nationalists have been primarily discontented with Northern Ireland's constitutional arrangements, and therefore that the new political settlement creates an opportunity to establish legitimate, impartial and professional policing. But it is an error to forget that the new political settlement included promises of police reform and these promises were critical ingredients in winning reform and these promises were critical ingredients in winning overwhelming endorsement for the Agreement among nationalist (and republican) voters in both parts of Ireland.
Hardline unionists oppose any significant reform of the RUC. Unionists of goodwill are not persuaded of its necessity, though they are prepared to acknowledge that there is some estrangement between the RUC and Catholics and nationalists, and are open to proposals for moderate reforms.
There is little doubt that violent republican intimidation deters Catholics from joining the RUC. Most Catholics and most nationalists agree with this fact, but it is misleading and erroneous to focus exclusively on this factor.
The survey does show that significant proportions of Catholics pick reasons in addition to (or instead of) republican intimidation when explaining why Catholics do not join the police. Thus 30 per cent list their opposition to the system of government; 22 per cent think they would be badly treated in the police; while 44 per cent list community 'pressure' as another reason (that is political and social norms as opposed to intimidation).
These data suggest that Catholics have several reasons for not joining the police. Reasonable people should conclude that these other reasons are likely to be more salient among nationalist as opposed to non-nationalist Catholics. These considerations are also reinforced by fieldwork research conducted by several academics, who would classify themselves as neither nationalist or unionist. For instance, a study of Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, and Dungannon found that while intimidation mattered, 'the view persisted among many Catholics that the RUC remained essentially a Protestant or unionist force'. The Opsahl Commission, which examined Northern Ireland in 1992-3 and undertook extensive public hearings, found that Catholic reluctance to enlist in the RUC was 'due less to fear of reprisal from the IRA and more because of the nationalist perception of the RUC as the instrument of a state which is still seen as British and unionist, and therefore as not "belonging" to their community' (emphasis added). Even the Police Authority, which in the past has emphasised the role of intimidation, points out in its latest annual report that Catholics also 'feel they may suffer prejudice or have to submerge their cultural and religious background to "fit" within the RUC'. Hardheaded realists may think such reasoning is typical of liberal-minded people and social scientific researchers, but if so they have to address a simple question: how did republican militants sustain themselves over thirty years and carry out systematic attacks on police officers and army personnel if the local population of Catholics and nationalists had no serious difficulties with the RUC.
Catholics have not joined the RUC in large numbers at any time, even when there was relatively little or no republican violence, and even when there were no effective republican organisations that could have successfully intimidated them. Before the most recent republican campaign began in 1969, the proportion of Catholic police officers was just a little over 10 per cent. True, the proportion of Catholic applications to join the force increased to relatively high levels in 1995, the year after the first IRA cease-fire, but this level (20 per cent) is less than half of the Catholic share of the population, especially within the relevant age cohorts and we have no way of knowing what proportion of these Catholics regard themselves as nationalists. These low application levels have persisted despite two important facts: Catholic males are twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestant males, and police salaries are among the most lucrative available in Northern Ireland.
Yet, despite these important reservations, survey data from Northern Ireland register strong levels of Catholic and nationalist disenchantment with the RUC.
There is a widespread view among Catholics that the RUC is biased towards Protestants. This view has remained consistent throughout much of the last thirty years. It is also reflected in all three 'community consultation' surveys undertaken by the Police Authority between 1996 and 1997. In the latest of these, one of the most favourable to the RUC, 29 per cent of Catholics though the RUC treated both communities equally, but 55 per cent thought that Protestants were treated better. By contrast, whereas 13 per cent of Protestants thought that their community was treated better by the RUC, only 1 per cent of Catholics thought Catholics were so favoured. Catholics and nationalists have consistently regarded the police as partial towards Protestants. They additionally suggest that nationalist Catholics hold this conviction more than Alliance-supporting Catholics. They also confirm that considerable minorities of unionists believe that Catholics and nationalists are correct in their perceptions of police partiality.
The major division among Catholics on the subject of police reform is also clear; it is over whether the RUC should be reformed or replaced/disbanded, that is, Catholics are divided between the recommendations of the SDLP and those of Sinn Fein. These opinions are also not merely snapshots but reflections of durable attitudes. In the latest survey conducted by the Police Authority, 77 per cent of Catholics want the RUC either to be reformed (42 per cent) or to be replaced/disbanded (35 per cent), while less than one in five, 18 per cent, appear to want the status quo.
Not all Protestants endorse the RUC, perhaps particularly since its policing of anti-Anglo-Irish Agreement protests after 1985, and of controversial Orange parades since 1995. Fieldwork rather than opinion surverys shows that younger, working-class, urban Protestants are less likely to trust the police than other Protestants, and more likely to support changes to policing, albeit moderate changes. Loyalist politicians are also more likely to criticise police methods than mainstream unionist parties. This does not mean, however that they favour significant constitutional and political change for the police in the way that nationalists and Catholics do. As Billy Hutchinson, one of the two Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) Assembly members, puts it, 'Loyalists support the police but are opposed to some police tactics.'
Similar fieldwork suggests that middle-class and older Catholics are less likely to be hostile towards the police than other Catholics, and more likely to call for reform of policing rather than disbandment. The SDLP and its supporters are less critical of the RUC than Sinn Fein and its supporters. These intra-community divisions open up the possibility of designing some reforms acceptable to segments of both communities.
The evidence from survey data shows that a significant majority of Catholics and nationalists are unhappy with current policing arrangements. It confirms what can be gleaned from in-depth intervies, or from analysis of the local papers read by Catholics and nationalists, or from listening to their representatives and community leaders in public and private. Catholics break down into a significant group of republicans who are fundamentally estranged from the RUC, have little or no confidence in it, and want to see it disbanded; another significant group that is unhappy with the police and wants substantial reforms; and a third and much smaller group that accepts the status quo. This evidence may not fit the claims of Sinn Fein that the RUC is 'totally unacceptable' to nationalists, but it is radically inconsistent with the claim that only a militant republican fringe genuinely oppose the RUC> The strength of nationalist opposition to the police suggests that while intimidation is a factor in explaining the low numbers of Catholic police officers, it is not the only and perhaps not the most important factor it may be more a symptom than a root cause. To argue that Catholics will join the police if 'allowed' to do so by republican militants is, after all, to claim that Catholic youth are eager to join a force they think should be substantially reformed or even disbanded.
The evidence firmly suggests that when nationalists political parties call for the police to be reformed or disbanded, or when nationalist civil society organisations such as the GAA operate sanctions against the police, they are reflecting the wishes of their followers rather than misrepresenting or manipulating them. The view that nationalists dislike the RUC because their leaders tell them to is not simply patronising, it is related to the view, expressed in many of the same sources, that nationalists' dislike of the Union is artificially fomented. We suspect this view is born of the same urges, the desire to wish away the claims for reform and the desire to deny the authenticity of nationalist sentiments. The fact is that nationalist and republican leaders are not free to endorse the existing RUC, or to encourage Catholics and nationalists to apply to join the RUC, or at liberty to take up seats on the Police Authority or local police liaison committees.
The price of so doing would be a grave loss of credibility with their constituencies. When policing institutions are reformed in such a way that grassroots nationalists are able to identify with them, only then will nationalist leaders be able, and willing, to endorse the policing of Northern Ireland.
Who guards the guardians - part two of a hard look at police accountability
John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary looked yesterday at the past and existing structures of the RUC and revealed the incredibly diverse attitudes to the force among different sections of the community. Today, in the second extract from their new book Policing Northern Ireland: Proposals for a New Start, they focus on the problems of calling the police service to account for its actions ...
In a nationally divided region, especially one in which the police have historically been associated with one particular ethnic or national community, citizens require assurances that the police are all the people's police, and democratic inputs and democratic evaluations of police outputs should be as inclusive as possible.
Any delegated institution charged with holding the police to account must therefore be representative of all the relevant national communities, and have decision-making rules that prevent one community's representatives from imposing its wishes on the others. Within any such framework it is desirable, and indeed essential, that police professionals should be allowed to operate in particular cases without political interference although citizens and their parties should be able to hold the police accountable for their policies in pursuing crime, and for their efficiency. These are the institutional ideals that we moderns invoke to answer the dilemma of the Caesars.
It is we, the citizens, who guard the guards, by subordinating them to the law and by holding their senior officers to account.
These are sensible democratic ideals. They are also feasible ideals. They are not utopian aspirations. The current situation in Northern Ireland falls considerably short of all of them.
A member of the British government the secretary of state for Northern Ireland who is not elected, even indirectly, by the citizens of Northern Ireland holds executive power over the RUC. The power to legislate on policing matters is a prerogative of the Westminster parliament in which Northern Irish MPs comprise one MP for every 37 MPs from Great Britain. The new Northern Ireland assembly has, as yet, no responsibility for security or policing.
The Police Authority for Northern Ireland has since 1970 had the task of holding the police to account on behalf of Northern Ireland's citizens. It is widely regarded as ineffective.
It is not representative, and it makes its decisions by simple majority vote. It is a quasi-non-governmental organisation, a quango. It is not an elected body. It is not an indirectly elected body. It is appointed by the secretary of state on the advice of her unelected officials.
Some districts of Northern Ireland have local Community-Police Liaison Committees that seek to influence policing on a local level, but they have no formal powers, and most ordinary citizens with whom we have discussed these issues are, unsurprisingly, unaware of their existence.
The secretary of state sets the policing budget and, in cooperation with the chief constable of the RUC and the British Army GOC (Northern Ireland), plays a key role in establishing security policy.
She is the main person, in consultation with her cabinet colleagues, responsible for legislative changes that affect policing.
For these reasons, among others, the future of police accountability, whatever the outcome of the Patten Commission, will ultimately depend on the decisions of the secretary of state and her colleagues.
The legislation establishing the Police Authority stipulated that, as far as practicable, it should be representative of the community.
The Police Authority was charged with providing an 'efficient and effective' police force, and was given direct responsibility for a number of aspects of policing, including the hiring and disciplining of senior officers, from assistant chief constable upwards.
It has had responsibilities in the allocation of expenditure on policing, and in the maintenance of police buildings and the provision of supplies although much of this responsibility has been transferred to the chief constable under the recent Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998.
It was hoped that the Police Authority would act as a buffer between the secretary of state, any devolved government and the chief constable, to protect the operational independence of the latter.
The legislation was partly aimed at bringing policing arrangements in Northern Ireland closer to those implemented in Great Britain by the Police and Magistrates Courts Act (1964).
This administrative harmonisation would not have occurred so quickly had it not been for the riots and pogroms of 1969 in which the police were directly implicated. The Hunt Report argued that the UUP had exercised partisan control over the RUC and that Catholics had little confidence in the police's impartiality. Hunt's answer was professionalisation on the British model, and the establishment of a representative Police Authority.
The reforms implemented, however, did not import any British model, lock, stock and barrel.
Police Authorities in Scotland are composed entirely of elected councillors, while those in England and Wales have a majority of elected councillors. The members of Northern Ireland's Police Authority are, by contrast, appointed by the secretary of state. This procedure was established despite Hunt's express recommendation that the Police Authority should be elected, and was justified on the grounds that it was necessary to prevent the politicisation of policing.
Since its inception the Police Authority has opted for a low profile. Until recently, it met in secret. Its membership and most of what it did were unknown to the public it was representing.
It has been almost completely uncritical, claiming in a 1989 report that the RUC was 'one of the best police forces in the world', a pronouncement that we are certain was not based on anything resembling comparative public policy research. Rather than representing the community to the police, it has appeared more interested in representing the police to the community.
The Police Authority has confined its attention, for the most part, to largely mundane technical and administrative matters, such as the provision of police supplies, equipment and buildings. There has been no noticeable attempt by it to change or even investigate controversial police policies such as the use of supergrasses, illegal interrogation methods at various 'holding centres', the deployment of undercover units, and the firing of plastic bullets at unarmed demonstrators.
There have been no public inquiries by the Police Authority into weighty (and sometimes palpably accurate) allegations of collusion between the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries, of a shoot-to-kill policy against republican militants in the 1980s, or, more recently, of the intimidation (and worse) of lawyers who defend republican clients.
The members of the Police Authority, whether Catholic or Protestant, have tended to be deferential towards the police.
They have not generally asserted the powers they do possess such as the power to call for reports, or to control supplies of equipment, such as plastic bullets or insisted on more radical powers.
In the words of one former member, they have behaved more like a 'performing poodle than an effective watchdog'.
This deference flows, in part, from the fact that the body is government-appointed.
Not only is this government British, it has been Conservative for 22 of the last 30 years.
Conservative appointees continue to dominate the Police Authority, despite Labour's landslide victory in 1997.
The deference can be attributed to the fact that the SDLP and, less importantly, the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions have refused to take seats on the Police Authority.
This unwillingness in turn flows largely from the Police Authority's weak powers, its majoritarian decision-making rules, and the absence, until recently, of an overall political settlement.
Sinn Fein has had no representation on the Police Authority, because it has not been invited to take any places, and in any case would be unwilling to participate.
Because of its timidity and its composition, nationalists do not see the Police Authority as an effective institution, or as impartial between unionists and nationalists.
Militant republicans, by contrast, consider it 'an integral part of the British apparatus of repression'.
In the view of Dr Maurice Hayes, a respected non-partisan, there is a 'total lack of faith' among Catholics 'in the Police Authority as a means of ensuring public accountability'.
The low esteem in which nationalists hold the Police Authority was indicated by a storm in February 1998 over government appointments to the new Parades Commission.
The government appointed two working-class loyalists with solid paramilitary connections, but two middle-class Catholics without nationalist credentials.
The most frequent accusation levelled against one of the Catholics by nationalists was that she had been a member of the Police Authority.
SINCE the 1980s, a number of local Community-Police Liaison Committees (CPLCs) have been established in Northern Ireland similar to those suggested by Lord Scarman for England and Wales after the Brixton riots of 1981. They are supposed to ensure that 'policing decisions are in tune with the needs of local people' and to 'improve relations between the police and public'.
The committees have no statutory basis or powers and have developed largely as a result of local initiative, and in an uneven and piecemeal fashion. By 1998, Northern Ireland had 39 CPLCs.
Sixteen of these were concentrated in the greater Belfast region while there were none in Newry or south Armagh, and only one in Co Fermanagh.
An in-depth study of 17 of these committees was undertaken in 1990 by an American academic, Ronald Weitzer.
Weitzer concluded that the committees had a limited impact on police-community relations, and on police accountability.
This conclusion was borne out by a survey conducted for the Police Authority in late 1997: 62 per cent of respondents (59 per cent of Protestants and 67 per cent of Catholics) said they were not aware of the existence of the CPLCs.
THE Westminster government appears to be aware that the Police Authority and the CPLCs have serious shortcomings.
The Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 seeks to strengthen accountability by clarifying the relationship between the Police Authority, the chief constable and the secretary of state.
The act makes the Police Authority responsible for drawing up an annual policing plan, and requires it to seek input from the community, including the elected district councils. Whether the act will strengthen the Police Authority is another question.
The chief constable's operational independence remains undefined.
The act transfers much of the control over expenditures on policing and the provision of supplies from the Police Authority to the chief constable. The Committee for the Administration of Justice argues that this may weaken the Police Authority, depriving it of a 'potentially very powerful tool of control'.
The CPLCs should be formally established in each district council.
To ensure that they are representative of their communities, they should either be directly elected, through the single transferable vote (STV), or be indirectly elected from the local district councillors, or appointed by political parties in proportion to their electoral strength in all the relevant districts.
This need not rule out participation by individuals without party connections, or by representatives of civil society associations, providing they are nominated by elected politicians or run as independents.
If direct elections are preferred, as we think they should be, these must take place on the same day as district council elections, to cut costs and to help ensure a reasonable turnout. Elections to multiple democratic institutions for example, police boards, library boards and local councils are the norm in north America.
The CPLCs' meetings should be open, and they should be obliged to consult with their local communities over policing priorities. They should be given defined statutory responsibility to help shape general police policy and priorities, and this should apply to the full range of police activities, not just mundane issues such as traffic control or petty burglaries.
Local police commanders should be required to consult with them, to appear before them when requested, and to take their recommendations into account.
The CPLCs should have input into the deliberations of whatever Northern Ireland-wide institutions are created to control the police. One way to organise a new Northern Ireland Police Committee, in fact, would be to constitute it as a federal body, with its membership drawn from the new CPLCs.
Any conceivable strengthening of the Police Authority and the CPLCs, however, would still leave the most important powers over policing in the hands of the secretary of state and the Westminster parliament.
The latest Police Act which, among other things, establishes a Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland and changes the oath that police officers must take, was passed at Westminster.
While it aims at increasing the accountability of the police by requiring the Police Authority to draft annual policing plans, it also gives a range of new powers to the secretary of state, including the powers to issue a code of practice to the Police Authority, to issue guidance to the chief constable about policing, to require the police to use certain equipment, and to establish new organisations to conduct research into the police's efficiency and effectiveness.
The only way, in our view, to make the police properly democratically accountable to the people of Northern Ireland is to transfer legislative and executive control over policing to the Northern Ireland Assembly and a new ministry of justice.
This should be done at the end of the two-year transitional period that began with the Good Friday agreement.
To allay concerns, and to act as an incentive to paramilitaries to hand in their weapons, any such transfer of power should be conditional on verifiable decommissioning by all mainstream paramilitary organisations.
Two objections generally arise to the idea of transferring executive and legislative control over policing to Northern Ireland's politicians.
The first recalls the way in which they abused this power in the past. Unionists in the Stormont regime used their control over policing to disastrous partisan effect.
The second potential criticism of our proposal can now be anticipated: it suggests that the devolution of control over policing would lead to interminable bickering and failure to reach agreement.
This is a pessimistic assumption, one that emanates from the same minds that predicted that there would be no overall political agreement in Northern Ireland. It is also the kind of criticism that is levelled against any power-sharing arrangement, given that they, by their very nature, require agreement between disparate groups.
This problem is not a compelling argument against power-sharing. It is a reason for designing institutions with incentives to prevent disagreements, and default mechanisms that limit the damage caused by them.
While unionists and nationalist politicians may be under pressure from radicals within their own bloc to disagree on policing, they will also be under pressure to agree, because agreement will underpin stability and facilitate co-operation on non-policing matters. Default mechanisms can be built in if it is considered vital to prevent deadlock.
If consensus cannot be reached on a particular policing matter, it might be referred upwards to the British government, acting in cooperation with its Irish counterpart through the intergovernmental conference.
Giving the British government the final say in such an appeal will give nationalists in the Assembly additional incentives to work towards compromise with their unionist colleagues.
Giving the Irish government an important role should create a similar incentive for unionists.
In the worst-case scenarios, control of policing could be taken away from the Assembly and handed over to the British and Irish governments, although we doubt that this will be necessary.
If it is accepted that control over policing should be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly and executive, the task of overseeing the police and the ministry responsible for policing could fall to a committee of the Assembly rather than to a separate police authority/committee.
Under the Good Friday agreement, all committees have scrutiny, policy development and consultation roles with respect to the departments with which each is associated. They also have the power to consider and advise on annual plans, to call individuals to give evidence or conduct research, to initiate inquiries and to make reports. Committees are proportionately constituted, and their recommendations on legislation are subject to the cross-community consent procedure in the Assembly at large.
As an additional safeguard, it should be stipulated that the Policing Committee should be headed by a politician from a different party than the minister responsible for policing.
THE institutions currently responsible for holding the RUC accountable to the people of Northern Ireland the Police Authority and local Community-Police Liaison Committees are widely and rightly regarded as failures.
This view is shared by the British government, if only implicitly, and it has called for suggestions on how they should be reformed.
Even if the Police Authority and the CPLCs are given more power and made more democratic, the Westminster government and parliament would continue to exercise ultimate legislative and executive control over policing.
We believe that this 'remote control' is no longer necessary given the emergence of a power-sharing government with strong institutional protections for minorities.
We have therefore argued that the secretary of state's powers over policing should be transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly and government something that Northern Irish politicians can request under the terms of the Good Friday agreement.
Our argument for reform is concluded. We have argued for nationally representative police, for police services that are nationally impartial, for a federal or two-tier territorial structure, and for properly democratic arrangements to hold the new police services to account.
Our proposals take into account the interests, identities and ideas of unionists, nationalists and others. They are guided by the history of policing in Ireland and by comparative knowledge of national and ethnic conflicts elsewhere.
Our argument is consistent with the terms of reference to the Patten Commission and the letter and spirit of the Good Friday agreement. It is fully consistent with the new consociational and confederal arrangements endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland. It meets the minority and human rights tests established in the agreement. It provides benchmarks against which the recommendations of the Patten Commission can be judged.
We hope that the publication of the Patten Commission's report and the UK government's response to it will ensure that there will be no need to write a second edition of this book.
Belfast academic John McGarry is professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo, Canada. He is a specialist in national and ethnic conflict regulation. Brendan O'Leary is from Cork is professor of Political Science and head of the Department of Government at the London School of Economics. He has been a political advisor to Mo Mowlam and Kevin McNamara and a constitutional consultant to the European Union and the United Nations.
Extracts from Policing Northern Ireland: Proposals for a new start by John McGarry and Brendan O'Leary. Published Blackstaff Press, £9.99