Being a highly political and dividing issue in Northern Ireland, policing has proven to be one of the most difficult tasks on the road of peacebuilding in a divided society.
After the establishment of the state of Northern Ireland in 1922, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was formed by the Unionist government, not only for maintaining law and order inside the new state, but also for defending cross-border attacks. Employing a vast majority of Protestants/Unionists, the police service was regarded by many Catholics/Nationalists as the armed wing of unionism, and was often accused of sectarianism and brutality. In addition to wider anti-Catholic discrimination (e.g. in housing and employment), having a Unionist police service helped the government ensure that Northern Ireland was going to stay part of the United Kingdom, and repress Nationalist threats to unity with the Crown.
Measurements, such as the introduction of internment without trial in 1969, caused further Nationalist distrust in the police. After violent episodes during civil rights marches, a reconstruction of the RUC was decided in the Hunt Report. This included the recruiting of the all-Protestant militia, the Ulster Special Constabulary, which was replaced by the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) in 1970. Unionists regarded these reserve forces as a defence against the IRA, while Nationalists saw them as brutal sectarians.
British soldiers were sent to Northern Ireland to support the police and at the peak of the Troubles; in 1972 there were 27,000 military personnel in Northern Ireland. At first both Unionists and Nationalists regarded the British Army as protectors against sectarian attacks, but this changed quickly. One reason was the killing of 13 Catholic civilians on 30 January 1972 (Bloody Sunday) by British paratroopers during a civil rights march. This not only destroyed any remaining Nationalist trust in the security forces, but it also radicalised many Nationalists and Republicans, increasing the number of people joining the Provisional IRA (which was established after a split of the IRA in 1969).
In addition to fighting for the end of British engagement in Northern Ireland, the (Provisional) IRA regarded itself as protectors of their community. At the same time, all sections of the security forces in Northern Ireland were alleged of colliding with mainly Loyalist paramilitary groups. During the most violent period of the Troubles, between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s, the IRA and the security forces were running a deadly cat-and-mouse fight.
During the paramilitary cease-fires in 1994, when the situation temporarily became less tense and security measurements eased, the police became much more open towards the public than security measurements and threats usually allowed them to be. They had a “force information day” and even a television show called Inside the RUC. A debate about policing and how to make it acceptable for both sides of the community arose. But it was to become a difficult task for both sides:
We all have to adapt. It’ll be hard. I’ve never policed in peace, but we all have to learn to change and adapt with the times. (Constable, War or Peace? UTV, 26 February 1996)
In 1998, the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland was established (as a result of the Good Friday Agreement). In 1999, it published the report, A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland (better known as the Patten Report). The report was an attempt to generate a police service that was acceptable to the whole community, and an attempt to make policing non-political. Key recommendations of the report were:
- renaming the Royal Ulster Constabulary the Northern Ireland Police Service
- removal of most visible symbols of Britishness from the police service
- a 50:50 recruitment policy for Catholics and Protestants
- a new Policing Board and District Policing Partnership Boards to ensure accountability
- creation of a Police Ombudsman and a Complaints Tribunal
- a new code of ethics and oath of office, including a strong emphasis on human rights
- an emphasis on community policing and normalisation
The Unionists were strongly opposed to any change of what they regarded as their police force and their protection against the IRA. At that time, the decommissioning of weapons had still to be done and was — alongside policing — one of the major issues that prevented the restoring of devolution. In addition to that, Unionists were appalled by the idea of removing British symbols, like the ”Royal” in the name, the badge and the flag, and regarded it all as an insult to all police officers who got killed during the Troubles.
However, in 2001 the two largest Unionist parties (DUP and UUP) signed up to the policing board, still sceptical but seen by Ian Paisley as the only way to assure Unionist control of the board.
On the Republican side there was significant opposition, too. Sinn Féin refused to endorse the new police service until the report’s recommendations had been implemented in full. The fact that the level of representation of Catholics would take a long time was one of the things that was regarded as a “fault-line” (see latest workforce composition figures of the PSNI). It was going to take time for Republicans to accept and trust what they still saw as a Unionist police force.
In the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 and the (Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2003, many of the Patten Report’s recommendations were implemented. In 2007 after the St Andrew’s Agreement (which set out a way forward not only for a power-sharing government but also for full support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)), Sinn Féin took their seat on the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
It then took nearly three years for the DUP and Sinn Féin to reach a deal over the devolution of policing and justice powers from Britain to Northern Ireland, with the Hillsborough Agreement on 5 February 2010.
Since the initiation of the Hillsborough Agreement in 2010 and subsequent support by opposing political parties, the police have made strides in implementing the provisions of past agreements and creating a force better equipped to function in Northern Ireland. In January 2015, the Legacy Investigation Branch (LIB) was created to “investigate homicide and security forces related deaths arising from the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ between 1969 and 2004”.
In 2018, the PSNI and NIPB conducted a review of local policing in order to better involve the public in determining future policing priorities at the local level. The Policing Plan for 2019–2020 cites fostering community trust and strengthening confidence in policing as continuous priorities. However, the chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board noted that “their ability to plan and invest in the future effectiveness and efficiency of the organisation” has been severely hampered by the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Executive from 2017 until January of 2020. The total reduction in funds over the last five years amounted to £150 million.
In the 1980s, Northern Ireland was regarded as the most dangerous place in Europe for police officers. While much has improved, the PSNI can still be stretched to limits. The annual parading season has seen many police officers attacked and injured, perpetrated sometimes by (dissident) Republicans, sometimes by Loyalists, depending upon the permission, adjustments or banning of specific parading routes, determined by the Parades Commission.
In addition to parading, the PSNI noted in their consultation for the policing plan of 2020–2025 that they continue to face unique threats, such as paramilitarism and bombing incidents. Additionally, the first week of April 2021 saw an alarming renewal of tensions and subsequent concern for the PSNI, with over 50 officers being injured from events that involved petrol bombs and a burning bus. There have been multiple links to the recent bout of unrest, including the decision not to prosecute anyone who attended the funeral of a leading IRA figure at the height of coronavirus restrictions and continuing discontent over the implications of Brexit.
These recent incidents and others in the last decade, such as the clashes between the Orange Order (a Protestant fraternity) and the police in July 2013, have shown how much has changed since the times of the RUC.
Research by Barbara ZEDLER and Janna TOBIN.
Last updated: 21 April 2021