'Youth, Policing and Victimisation in Northern Ireland - Reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary', by Graham Ellison
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The following article was contributed by Dr. Graham Ellison from the Department of Criminology, Keele University. The research was funded by a Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) grant. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This chapter is copyright of Graham Ellison (© 2000) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
YOUTH, POLICING AND VICTIMISATION IN NORTHERN IRELAND
YOUTH, POLICING AND VICTIMISATION IN NORTHERN IRELAND
Dr Graham Ellison
ECONOMIC & SOCIAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
The data presented below were derived from a major research study funded by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC). The study adopts a multi-dimensional approach to the study of young people, crime, policing and victimisation, and is the first to consider in a comprehensive fashion young people’s experiences of crime and policing in Northern Ireland (14-18 years old). The present survey is the only one ever undertaken in Northern Ireland to deal explicitly with young people’s experiences of crime and policing. The project was conducted in three phases. Phase One was quantitative in orientation and involved the distribution of a self-report questionnaire to 1000 young people in twelve schools and four youth groups within the Belfast Urban Area and three schools in an area outside Belfast (a total of fifteen schools). Phase Two of the project involved exploring in a qualitative fashion a number of issues raised in Phase One of the research and involved the participation of 120 young people in twenty focus-group interview sessions. Phase Three (yet to take place) will comprise workshop sessions to be organised as part of a two-day conference to be held in Belfast. This will have a cross-community theme and involve a sample of young people from each of the schools that have participated in the research.
In order to avoid the deficiencies inherent in conventional attitudinal surveys in Northern Ireland - particularly the tendency to over-state moderate, and conversely understate radical opinion – the present study made an concerted effort to elicit the opinions of young people in strongly nationalist and loyalist districts of Belfast. The schools and youth groups that participated in the survey were carefully chosen to reflect the socio-spatial, and demographic characteristics of the city. Young people from areas of high unemployment and socio-economic deprivation completed the questionnaire and participated in the focus-group sessions, as did those from affluent working class, and leafy middle-class suburbs. The study included young people from districts characterised by a high level of ethno-religious segregation – areas that are strongly nationalist/republican or unionist/loyalist - as well as those that can be regarded as predominantly ‘mixed’ in ethno-religious terms.
The data presented below were derived from a subset of the questionnaire that examined young people’s attitudes to the RUC in Northern Ireland, with a specific focus on the following: (i) whether the RUC needs to be reformed (Table 1); (ii) whether the name of the force should be changed (Table 2); and, (iii) whether the symbolism of the force should be politically neutral (Table 3). The questionnaire also dealt with broader policing issues – the frequency of being stopped and searched, for instance, and also whether young people felt that they had ever been ‘harassed’ by members of the security forces, including the RUC. For reasons of space, and since the present discussion will deal principally with attitudes towards the Patten Commission proposals, these will only be discussed in outline form here.
In general, young males (both Catholic and Protestant) appear to have an excessively large - vis a vis their adult counterparts - number of what are termed ‘adversarial encounters’ with the police, although the data in the present survey is broadly in line with that found by Anderson et al, (1994) in Edinburgh. For example, 68.6% of Protestant males in the sample stated that they had ‘been told off or told to move on’ by the police, compared to 69.0% of Catholic males. Similarly, 69.3% of Protestant males had been stopped and questioned by the RUC, compared to 71.0% of Catholics males. Interestingly, the group most likely to be stopped and questioned by the RUC were members of minority ethnic groups. However, the rather small number of cases for this particular category in the overall sample means that it is difficult to generalise about the findings, although the responses from minority-ethnic respondents do demonstrate a high level of internal consistency. At the very least, this raises worrying questions about the RUC’s relationship with this section of the community in Northern Ireland, suggesting as a matter of urgency that further research be undertaken in this area.
In relation to the question on ‘harassment’ by the members of the security forces, which was defined in the questionnaire as ‘being pushed or shoved, threatened, called names, or being stopped for a very long time without good reason’ [with an additional box provided so that the young person could add their own response] 52% of the Catholic sample believed that they had been ‘harassed’ by the RUC, compared to 22.6% of Protestant young people. Again, 36.7% of those respondents classifying themselves as belonging to a minority-ethnic background felt that they had been harassed by members of the force.
The data in Table 1 demonstrates that policing – particularly the issue of RUC reform – remains as divisive an issue for young people as it does for adults. A sharp and decisive polarisation of opinion is evident in relation to whether the RUC should be reformed in the context of the on-going ‘peace process’. For example, a majority of Protestant young people (46.9 %) state that there should be no reforms to the RUC at all (i.e. it should remain ‘unchanged’), whereas 20.8 % believe that it should be reformed slightly, with 4.6% and 6.4% suggesting that the force should be ‘reformed a lot’ or ‘disbanded and replaced by a new force’ respectively. When the data are aggregated some 31.8% of Protestant young people are in favour of an element of reform or change to the RUC.
The data presented here furnish a slightly different picture of Protestant attitudes to the RUC than has been depicted in adult surveys’ (such as those conducted by the Police Authority for Northern Ireland, (PANI)). For instance, in the five community consultation surveys’ conducted by the PANI between 1995 and 1998, an overwhelming majority of Protestant respondents are in favour of allowing the RUC ‘to carry on as now’ (71% in 1995 falling slightly to 65% in 1998), with the proportion stating that they would like to see an element of reform listed at 23% in 1995, rising to 30% in 1998. The present data differ in two respects. First, the percentage of Protestant young people who favour ‘no change’ to the RUC (46.9%) is significantly lower than for their adult counterparts in the PANI surveys’. On the other hand, the proportion of respondents indicating that they would like to see some element of reform is broadly comparable to the PANI results (31.8%). The answer to this apparent anomaly may lie with the relatively high proportion who ticked the ‘Don’t Know / Not Sure’ category in the Protestant sample (21.3 %). This may be reflective of a degree of wavering by some young Protestants over the direction of the peace process in the period when the survey was conducted, and in particular, their perception of the threat posed by Republican paramilitary organisations. On the other hand, it may be that some young Protestants feel that a degree of reform is necessary, but remain undecided about the direction that this should take.
Second, the percentage of Protestant respondents in the PANI surveys’ who stated that they would like to see the ‘disbandment’ of the RUC was zero in each year cohort. Perhaps one reason why this issue has surfaced in the current study may simply reflect the age range of the sample (14-18 years) and the tendency for the police to involve themselves more with young people – whether in terms of ‘moving them on’, and the more extensive use of stop and search powers. Thus routine policing practices may have a negative experiential effect in structuring Protestant attitudes to the RUC. On the other hand, the growing tensions between the RUC and working-class Protestant youth (particularly, young males living in urban areas) may arise specifically in relation to contentious marching issues, such as with Drumcree or the situation on the Lower Ormeau Road. However, on the basis of the data presented here it remains doubtful whether Protestant support for the RUC as an institution has declined (see Ellison & Smyth, 2000, Chapter 9), and during the focus-group sessions many young Protestants (from all social classes and backgrounds) made frequent reference to ‘their police’. Nonetheless, in general terms it might be fair to say that the relationship between the RUC and young Protestants, particularly in urban, working-class areas, remains decidedly uneasy. This can be highlighted from the following transcripts:
It depends... Sometimes I think ... black bastards... Sometimes they really do your head in because they’re wrong. They come in and they start beating all around them. It’s about individuals though. You can’t say it about the whole force 'cos there’s dicks in it, but there’s normal good people that are only trying to do their job (Protestant male, 17 years).
Another young person remembers:
About two summers ago me and two of my mates were walking up the street with our sports-bags to play football and two cop cars pulled up... They put us up against the wall and started reading us our rights and searching us and all that, and we didn’t know what it was about. They said that we were going to steal a car! Nah, it wasn’t right... I didn’t even do anything. They said that we were suspects for stealing a car, like for joy-riding! We asked them what we were being searched for, and they said "We think youse know" and we said "We don’t" and there was a wee boy with us, he was only thirteen and he was crying and all... looking for his Ma. They said that we had been seen by a witness and the witness came up – he was an old man – and he said that it wasn’t us, and the Peeler says "Away youse go", no apology or nothing! We were in the car and all, ready to go to the station! (Protestant male, 17 years).
However, it is with the contentious issue of marching and Orange parades that appears to generate particular Protestant hostility to the RUC:
Depends on what mood I’m in, if I like them. If I see them at the match and they start going in and hitting people, like hitting wee girls or something, when they are only getting excited, I don’t like that. When I see them on TV stopping the likes of us from marching I hate them, but when I see them hitting the Catholics I am ready for kissing them, I love them (Protestant male, 16 years).
Sure I was out doing a march around the car park – we were just practising for the band - and the Peelers were straight round, thinking we were doing an illegal march (Protestant male, 15 years).
For Catholic young people, attitudes towards the RUC form the polar opposite of that for their Protestant counterparts. Fewer than one percent (0.7 %) of Catholic young people believe that the RUC should remain ‘unchanged’ in regard to the current political process. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the Catholic sample suggest that the RUC should be ‘disbanded and replaced by a new force’ (66.2%), with a further 13.2% believing that it should be ‘reformed a lot’, with a further 6.7% wanting it ‘reformed slightly’. The aggregate percentage of all Catholic respondents who favour some element of RUC reform, is 86.1%. While further cross-tabulation of the data is required, it would appear that this belief is not confined to either staunch republicans, or young people who live in areas of high social or economic deprivation. This point is at variance with traditional analyses of survey data in Northern Ireland (see Brewer 1992; Weitzer 1995) where it is suggested that Catholic attitudes to the RUC are characterised by a high degree of intra-communal cleavage, between moderate nationalists and republicans, or SDLP and Sinn Fein voters, for instance. This however, is not supported in the current study (for additional supporting evidence see Ellison 2000) and in fact an overwhelming cross-section of Catholic young people – from a range of social backgrounds, with the sons and daughters of barristers, solicitors, doctors and teachers among their number - share the view that the RUC should be ‘disbanded and replaced by a new force’. (Hardly, the ‘young people going through a rebellious phase, criminals and terrorists’, that the Chairperson of the Northern Ireland Police Federation spoke about.) Thus it can be said that conventional analyses of survey data in Northern Ireland have tended to overplay the extent of intra-communal variation in Catholic attitudes to the RUC. In particular, many young Catholics from middle-class backgrounds were adamant that there were particular problems with policing in Northern Ireland:
For Catholics it [policing] is a very sensitive issue and there should be compromise to try and please everybody as much as possible. I know it is hard to please everybody, but the RUC definitely aren’t doing that... People in West Belfast they don’t want the RUC – they say "RUC out" – they are scared and feel intimidated by them, just because the RUC has such a bad reputation for being a sectarian, Protestant force. It would be much easier if the RUC were reformed... If you were a particularly strong nationalist you certainly wouldn’t want to serve in something called the Royal Ulster Constabulary (Catholic female, 16 years).
Protestants would feel much more comfortable joining the police force because they are a majority in it and they probably feel that it is a more natural thing to do. Catholics might feel a bit more uncomfortable (Catholic male, 15 years).
During the focus group sessions the participants were asked to discuss the ways(s) that the London Metropolitan Police differed from the Royal Ulster Constabulary. This was designed to elicit whether young people in Northern Ireland could conceptualise what ‘normal policing’ meant in a social democratic setting.
Where a bifurcation occurs in middle-class and working-class Catholic attitudes to the RUC it is likely to be more firmly contextualised at the level of politics and culture rather than direct experience, although this is by no means one-dimensional, since many working-class nationalists expressed political and cultural objections to the RUC also. Rather, it is to emphasise what criminologists already know, namely that young people (particularly young males) from urban, working-class environments are subject to denser forms of policing, and thus greater potential for hostile encounters with the police, than their counter-parts in the suburbs. As such, many middle-class Catholic young people, while stressing that their direct involvement with, or experience of, the RUC was minimal, were nevertheless concerned to highlight the view that the force represented something politically and culturally alien to them.
Unionists feel closer to the RUC because of the idea that they are ‘your’ police force. Whereas on the nationalist side you feel further from the police. I mean you would have the same level of knowledge about your local police as someone on the other side of the community but, you would feel innately that you were distant from them because of the reputation that they would have in your community (Catholic male, 17 years).
What I am saying is that people on the Unionist side of the community would... Like I mean they would be happier joining them, happier talking to them... They would just feel more in touch with them and be able to see them as ‘their’ police (Catholic male, 16 years).
Having grown up – like it or not – as five young Catholic, nationalists our views on the RUC are so ingrained. However, I still think that there is some basis in fact for thinking that the RUC is an organisation that actively promotes unionism and at the same time does all it can to deny nationalism (Catholic male, 18 years).
Catholic respondents from working-class backgrounds appear to have had a higher level of experiential contact with the RUC as the following transcripts illustrate.
While these forms of contact involved the young people directly, other forms of experiential contact derive from specific policing practices such as house searches that are conducted routinely in urban working-class nationalist districts of Belfast. Whether these are warranted or not – and it has been suggested that such actions merely contribute to the blanket criminalisation of particular areas – they undoubtedly have an impact on structuring the attitudes of young people to the RUC. These negative impressions are accumulated over a long period of time, and for many young people contribute to their ‘lived reality’ of policing. This can be illustrated in the following transcripts from 14 year-old, Catholic males:
The data in Table 2 was derived from a question concerning the Patten recommendation to change the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Northern Ireland Police Service. Respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with this particular recommendation. Again, the responses polarise towards ethno-religious extremes, with the majority of Catholic respondents agreeing strongly with the proposal (60.3%) and a further 11.6% ‘agreeing a little’ (aggregate 71.9%), compared to a mere 2.8% of the sample who do not wish to see the name changed. Conversely, 53.9% of Protestant young people disagreed with a change of name, with a further 6.6 % ‘disagreeing a little’ (aggregate 60.5%). Only 7.1% of Protestant young people ‘agreed a lot’ with the proposal to change the name, with a further 4.9%, ‘agreeing a little’.
The responses of Protestant young people mirror the current tensions within the Protestant-Unionist community (and indeed those within the Ulster Unionist Party) over current proposals to change the name of the RUC in respect of the Patten Commission Report. The focus group questions on this particular issue, elicited a variety of responses, although some of the more common views expressed were that a change of name would ‘dishonour’ members of the force that had been killed, and that it represented a further erosion of British-Protestant identity. For example, in relation to the Patten proposals to make the RUC more representative of the community a Protestant male suggested:
I think that they are going to take five thousand Protestants or whatever and replace them with Catholics. But the three hundred and two officers that were killed, were mainly all Protestants, and they put their life on the life on the line. I think that it is wrong, that they should just be pushed aside now when the Troubles have gone away. The Catholics just want to get into the police now because it is easy (17 years old).
Other respondents argued:
My Grandfather was a policeman and he was shot, and I think it is awful that his police force – the force that he worked for and everything – is going to change and let in people that wouldn’t have ever joined before (Protestant female, 17 years).
There were a few Catholics that were killed in the police, but it was mainly Protestants that were killed – nearly all Protestants. It is sort of making little of their death when they are going to change it all and throw away all these symbols (Protestant male, 15 years).
But the symbols are important because of all the police officers who have died in the Troubles. They gave their lives for the RUC and I think that it is a shame and disgrace that they are going to be changed (Protestant male, 18 years).
In fact, an overwhelmingly large number of Protestant young people believed that the name and symbolism of the RUC was not - and indeed never has - represented a barrier to Catholic recruitment (a point, which is hotly contested by a great many Catholic young people) [discussed below] with the majority of Protestant respondents arguing that the principal reason to explain the low level of Catholic recruitment was intimidation by Republican paramilitary organisations:
The RUC is very Protestant based and it always has been, but that is only because there has always been a sectarian divide. But Roman Catholics wouldn’t join the police force. They were told that they would get shot and their families would disown them when they joined the police force. So it wasn’t the RUC’s fault that Catholics wouldn’t join. I really think now that Catholics are going to have to come in [to the force] but it is going have to be balanced so that Protestants don’t feel victimised (Protestant female, 17 years).
I know but they would never have joined before because they would have been threatened with getting shot, or whatever, if they joined the police force. And now they all they all want in... (Protestant female, 16 years).
As noted above, the tensions currently in evidence within the Unionist community over the issue of police reform are mirrored in the responses to the survey, and also in the focus group data. While the majority of Protestant respondents are vehemently opposed to any change, a significant number nevertheless believe that such change is necessary in order to concretise the peace process.
I mean not every Catholic in West Belfast is a terrorist and not everybody that writes "RUC Out" on the walls is a terrorist. I think the Patten stuff is good because it is a compromise (Protestant female, 16 years).
The whole opposition to Patten is just stubbornness... Protestants who don’t want to change. Anyway, they are not going to do anything that would make the police be against Protestants – they are just modernising (Protestant female, 17 years).
I didn’t really see the need for all the changes and I would have been quite happy for it to have stayed the way it was. But at the end of the day a mixed police force will make things better, and help the peace process along. It definitely will. This is what everything’s about, trying to integrate Catholics and Protestants together. Like the police force is just one way of starting it. It is a good way. I didn’t really care much for all the changes, but I feel that they had to happen. Like I didn’t think that the name and everything should be changed (Protestant female, 18 years).
An overwhelming majority of Catholic respondents from all social backgrounds believe police reform to be an essential, and indeed integral component, of the current peace process. In particular, Catholic young people feel that the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary represents a visible and overt diminution of their nationalist-Irish identity. During the focus group sessions a number of young people voiced the opinion that it has allowed the RUC to associate itself solely with one section of the community, while many others objected to its overt and ostensible identification with ‘Britishness’. Many young people also expressed the view that the name of the RUC represented something alien and foreign to them. Interestingly, many Catholic young people went to great lengths to make clear that a change in the name of the RUC would not be enough to guarantee Catholic/Nationalist recruitment in the new force. For them, it represented a first step, and was contingent upon major and substantive restructuring elsewhere. Particularly, those issues to do with recruitment, in order to redress the current religious and political imbalance.
Well the way the RUC is at the minute would intimidate some Catholics – it’s Royal and therefore its British – whereas if it had a different name they would probably think that this is just the police. Some people who didn’t know what the RUC was would just think of it as an army. If the name was changed people wouldn’t see a Protestant organisation or a Catholic organisation they would just see a police force (Catholic male, 14 years).
Another young person responded in the following way when asked if he would ever consider a career in the RUC:
No, I wouldn’t - for the simple reason that I think they need to be totally reconstructed, and I think that at the moment it is just like a Unionist militia. There are a lot of bona fide members of it. I’ve got friends whose parents are in it, and they are very nice people. But because of some of their actions, no I couldn’t join them (Catholic male, 17 years).
I don’t think the Patten stuff goes far enough because it is just going to be the same people under a different police name. It’s going to be full of those people that beat that Catholic guy up ________, but just with a different uniform on. They are still going to be the same people, and they are still going to have the same hatred for Catholics (Catholic male, 14 years).
Another respondent argued that he wanted to see the Patten proposals implemented in full and without dilution:
But what’s happening at the moment is that they are changing some of the parts of Patten, or are proposing to change some parts of Patten. It seems to be that Unionists are getting concessions. Like because they are changing it, it is not going to make any of us more likely to join, or even to accept the new force. You would need to implement Patten in full before people would even consider joining it. All they are doing at the moment is going to make some good police officers unemployed, but we won’t take their places because it’s been diluted so much (Catholic male, 17 years).
Another Catholic respondent suggested that a change of the force’s name was essential if policing were to indeed have a new beginning in Northern Ireland:
What is the point of trying to reform it, to get more Catholics or nationalists into it, if you are going to keep the name that brings back so many memories and that has barred people from entering it in the past. There is no point in doing the rest of it, if you are going to keep the name. It needs to go as much as anything else really. No its being realistic. Some people just won’t join it if the name stays the same. The name is important because whether cosmetically or not, if it goes it brings in the idea that there is a new police force here. One that will be fair, one that will be different. So young nationalists can feel they can join this and hold their heads up high, and not feel ashamed in their own areas (Catholic male, 18 years).
The responses in Figure 3 were derived from a question concerning the symbolism of the RUC (i.e. emblem, badge & flag). Respondents were asked their views on whether the police should display the symbolism (e.g. emblems, badges, flags etc.) associated with political or religious groups in Northern Ireland. This issue is germane in the current political climate, given the political wrangling about flying the Union flag from government buildings.
An overwhelming majority of young Catholics (82.7%) ‘agreed a lot’ with the statement that ‘the police should not wear or display the symbols associated with any political or religious group in Northern Ireland’ with a further 5.2% ‘agreeing a little’, making an aggregate total of 87.9%. Thus, for young Catholics it is important that the police be politically and symbolically neutral in representational terms.
In some parts of the North – what the RUC have done in it – is still remembered. So the whole name "RUC" and the badge – they can’t understand what is wrong with a badge that has got a shamrock and a harp as well as the English crown. But it is what both the name and the badge have come to represent in certain areas. If they are going to want to recruit people from those areas, they’d need to remove their symbolism (Catholic male, 17 years).
Like I mean the "Royal Ulster Constabulary" – its not even Ulster! But its the same with "Northern Ireland Police Service" – "Northern Ireland" – Catholics mightn’t want that either! (Catholic male, 14 years).
Well the ‘Ulster’ bit, many people would think that Northern Ireland isn’t Ulster, there are three other counties in it and they would see that as being wrong. And there are also those who wouldn’t really like the Royal family for whatever reason, so they wouldn’t like the Royal part either (Catholic male, 14 years).
Some other Catholic respondents expressed the view that the new police service did not really need a badge, or if it did it should be politically neutral: [respondents male & female, 16 years].
The picture for young Protestants is the binary opposite of that for their Catholic counterparts, with a broadly equal split for and against the proposition that the police should not be associated with the symbols of any religious or political group in Northern Ireland. 25.2% ‘agreed a lot with the statement’, with a further 8.3% ‘agreeing a little’ (aggregate 33.5%). For those opposed, 33.7% ‘disagreed a lot’, with a further 5.6% ‘disagreeing a little’ (aggregate 39.3%). Once again it would appear that the Protestant sample is reflecting the broader tensions within Unionism, with the relatively large ‘don’t know’ response (13.7%), possibly containing some respondents who might like to see an element of reform in the context of the current peace process, but who are unsure about the implications of changing the name and symbolism of the force. Indeed, in the focus group sessions, many Protestant respondents felt that changing the RUC’s name and symbolism represented a diminution of their national identity, and for some at least, was the first step on the road to a United Ireland:
I don’t think that it needs to be changed. The Royal part allows you to associate the fact that Northern Ireland is part of Great Britain and that it should remain so. It is just taking away from our being British and head more towards a united Ireland (Protestant female, 15 years).
The numbers of the RUC are a bit biased to the Protestants but like flying the Union Jack on the police station, and the badge and all, I think that should stay, definitely. They are just trying to make it into a police force that has no symbols and then in a few years, I think down the line you’ll see Northern Ireland go (Protestant male, 17 years).
The survey and focus group session demonstrate that for both Protestant and Catholic young people, from all social classes and backgrounds, policing is an issue over which they are deeply divided. This is perhaps unsurprising. Policing was always going to be the issue most likely to inflame passions in terms of the current peace process, with unionists resisting any attempt to ‘tinker’ with ‘their’ police, and nationalists – certainly on the basis of the evidence presented here – demanding major and concrete restructuring, to something they regard as alien, and often threatening. This should not be underestimated. The historical legacy of policing in Northern Ireland, has for a variety of reasons and circumstances, created two police forces in Northern Ireland: one for Protestants and one for Catholics. Of course, this is not solely the fault of the RUC, but rather, can be regarded as a more general consequence of the ‘The Troubles’. However, even the much vaunted ‘normalisation’ of policing following the first republican cease-fires nearly six years ago, has made little difference to the willingness of the Catholic community to engage with the RUC (Ellison 2000). Certainly, many young Catholics living in urban, working-class environments, have no conception of the police as an institution of civil society. For them, the RUC is something to be feared, or at least avoided. This however, is not to imply that such young people are in any sense ‘anti-police’, in spite of the comments made by Les Rodgers, the Chairperson of the Northern Ireland Police Federation, who suggests that the only people who could conceivably argue for RUC reform are ‘drop outs, young people going through a rebellious phase, criminals and terrorists’ (cited in the Irish News, 19 November, 1997). On the contrary, many young people – both Catholic and Protestant – argued strongly for a locally based (and recruited) force, that they could engage with, and perhaps more importantly, for young Catholics, identify with. It is emphatically not the case that the present sample contains a large number of disaffected youths’, who are merely adopting an anti-authority stance to the issue of policing.
The situation for young middle-class Catholics is no better. While many regarded the RUC as a functional necessity - for insurance paperwork, or dealing with traffic – virtually all respondents had major problems with the RUC, with the general tenor being that the force should be viewed with at best, a degree of indifference or ambivalence, and at worst outright hostility. The views of young people centred on past controversies, allegations of collusion and shooting to kill, for instance, although more frequently voiced criticisms concerned the extent to which the RUC represented something culturally and politically alien to them. Thus, issues to do with the symbolism of the force, and its inherently ‘unionist’ ethos and occupational culture, were objected to strongly (see also, Ellison 1997). Indeed, a number of young people resented the fact that an entire sphere of employment – in policing and security – has effectively been denied to them, or at least put so far out of their reach that they could not even consider it as an option. One Catholic young person (male) from a prosperous North Belfast suburb, spoke with some passion about the ‘shame’ that joining the RUC would bring on him, his family and his community.
The relationship between Catholic young people (from all backgrounds and social classes) and the RUC is nothing short of disastrous. It represents a crisis of such proportions that it has the potential to destabilise the entire peace-process if not remedied soon, before a political vacuum re-emerges (replete with paramilitaries from both sides). A situation does not exist elsewhere in the United Kingdom, nor indeed in the European Union, whereby nearly half the population of a particular region or country refuse to engage normatively with the police. Nor do I suspect that such a situation would even be tolerated. It is vital to the stability of the current peace process that measures are instigated – such as with the Patten Commission proposals – that actively encourage the Catholic community to engage with whatever new policing structures and institutions are put in place. A word of caution here. Many Catholics argued in the focus-group sessions that any dilution of the Patten proposals would make it impossible for them to join – or even consider joining – the new force. There needed to be, as one young person said, ‘a completely new beginning’ to policing arrangements in Northern Ireland.
The situation for young Protestants is different, though equally problematic. Broadly, speaking, people engage with the police at a number of different levels, in terms of their experiential contact, how they regard them as an institution and so on. Thus some working-class Protestants, predominantly those living in urban working-class areas, find that the RUC are no less averse than their counterparts elsewhere (say in Britain) to regarding them as ‘police property’ (cf. Lee, 1981) thereby exacerbating the potential for hostile or adversarial encounters. Indeed, on the basis of the evidence presented here, religion makes little difference to whether a young person is stopped, questioned, or searched by the RUC. Age, appearance, locality, social-class, (and perhaps even ethnicity) are probably more significant variables. Certainly, it would appear that much more needs to be done by the police to actively engage with young people in a more sophisticated, and less bellicose fashion than would seem to be the case at present.
On the other hand, recent theoretical work suggests that policing is about more than what men and women in blue, black or green uniforms do (Ellison & Smyth 2000, chapter 9; Brogden 1999). Policing is a cultural artefact, and at the symbolic level has the capacity to promote (and indeed deny) particular forms of national identity. Thus for many Protestants, the RUC are still regarded as ‘their police’, particularly since they shared a genesis with the formation of the Northern state, and played a major role in its consolidation. There is therefore, a deeply embedded and strongly felt, emotional attachment to the force.
Nonetheless, the truth of the matter is that Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society, whose demographic balance cannot (and should not) be represented in terms of a simple minority-majority dichotomy. Indeed, this ignores the fact that nationalists comprise over forty percent of the population of Northern Ireland – hardly a simple ‘minority’ in any realistic interpretation of the term, and in some areas (particularly West of the river Bann) are actually in the majority. Thus to have a police force that can be identified culturally, historically, politically and socially with one section of the community only is hardly conducive to long-term peace and stability. The solution would appear to lie with the Patten Commission Report which aims to create a new policing service for Northern Ireland – one that all political traditions (and none) can aspire to.
Anderson, S., Kinsey, R., Loader, I., Smith, C. – 1994, Cautionary Tales: Young People, Crime and Policing in Edinburgh, London: Avebury
Brewer, J.D., - 1992, ‘The Public and the Police’, in P.Stringer & G.Robinson (eds), Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland, Belfast: Blackstaff Press
Brogden, M., - 1997, Burning Churches and Victim Survey’s, paper presented to British Society of Criminology Conference, Queen’s University, Belfast, July.
Brogden, M., - 1999, ‘Community Policing as Cherry Pie’, in R.I. Mawby (ed) Policing Across the World, London: UCL Press
Ellison, G. – 1997, Professionalism in the Royal Ulster Constabulary: An Examination of the Institutional Discourse, unpublished D.Phil thesis. University of Ulster, [Jordanstown].
Ellison, G. & Smyth, J., - 2000, The Crowned Harp: Policing Northern Ireland, London: Pluto
Ellison, G. – 2000, ‘Reflecting all Shades of Opinion: Public Attitudinal Surveys’ and the Construction of Police Legitimacy in Northern Ireland’, British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 40, No 1, Winter
Lee, J.A. – 1981, ‘Some Structural Aspects of Police Deviance in Relations with Minority Groups’, in C.D. Shearing (ed) Organisational Police Deviance, Toronto: Butterworth & Co.
McGarry, J. & O’Leary, B., - 1995, Explaining Northern Ireland, Oxford: Blackwell
Weitzer, R. – 1995, Policing Under Fire: Ethnic Conflict and Police-Community Relations in Northern Ireland, Albany: State University of New York Press
CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.
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