The Police Service of Northern Ireland Faces a Challenge to Legitimacy that only Irish History Can Provide

The 11 year-old Police Service of Northern Ireland is seeing its legitimacy challenged on all sides this month as the past comes roaring back at them. The PSNI is teaching everyone in policing that we can’t wish away history and legitimacy is something you must reinforce each shift through a commitment to procedural justice, regardless of how many gasoline bombs and bricks are thrown at you.  No one ever said it would be easy.

Police in democratic society always find themselves in the middle of unresolved social problems and get thrown at problems society cannot otherwise figure out.  (See 1960s, US) They inherit the fallout from police efforts of the past.  Few police services in the democratic world experience this quite like the PSNI has since its inception.

The brutal evidence of what the PSNI is facing is reported in today’s Irish newspapers: 47 members of the service injured in rioting sparked by sectarian violence on the part of elements in the Unionist (Protestant) community.  In The Irish Times “local PSNI district commander Chief Supt George Clark described the attacks on his officers as ‘savage’ and said that those responsible would be ‘held to account.'” The violence is reported as a build-up to an event that PSNI officials fear could generate more serious violence and deaths: the “celebration” on September 28  of the 100th anniversary of the “Ulster Covenant.”

In 1912 in response to gathering support in the British Parliament for Home Rule for Ireland extremist politicians in Ulster organized a mass petition campaign for a Protestant/Unionist  “covenant” to fight Home Rule.  They also illegally smuggled boatloads of arms into the North. “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right,” bellowed Sir Edward Carson, the lead demagogue of that reactionary movement.  Carson committed and suborned treason but he suffered no consequences.  (Consistent with the colonial sectarianism of the day, the British hung nationalist leaders for the same offenses during that time.)  The organizers declared September 28, 1912, “Ulster Day.”  In total, 237,368 men signed the Covenant and 234,046 women signed the supporting Declaration.  Historians described the politicians’ actions as “playing the Orange card,” in the same way (primarily) Southern white supremacists have at key junctures played the race card in the US.

The PSNI is the first democratic police force in the history of northeast Ireland.  The first on the island is the Garda Siochana organized by the new Irish Free State in 1922.  PSNI’s immediate antecedent is the Royal Ulster Constabulary established with the partition of Ireland in 1922.   From 1922 to its overdue demise in 2001, the RUC was a baldly sectarian paramilitary whose purpose was to uphold  Carson’s ideal: a divided and intolerant state with Protestant supremacy constructed on a foundation of apartheid legal institutions. As an early NI prime minister described his government and state: “a Protestant Parliament and a Protestant State.

Thus, the PSNI inherited a freight train of baggage when in 2001 as part of the historic peace agreements the RUC was disbanded.  Formation of a new service conceived with justice, fairness and lawfulness as its ideals was proposed by the Patten Commission (of which former Boston commissioner Kathleen M. O’Toole was a member). The Commission charged the PSNI with a mission to serve as a nonsectarian, non-partisan community police service for all people in NI.  As the department promises in its statement of purpose,

“The Police Service of Northern Ireland’s purpose is to make Northern Ireland safer for everyone through professional, progressive policing.  We achieve this goal through policing with the community.  This  proactive, community-driven approach sees the police and local community working together to identify and solve problems.”

Northern  Ireland is made up of six of the nine counties of the Ulster province of Ireland.  It is a tough place for the police.  Overall, NI reports a much higher rate of violent crime than does, for example, Massachusetts.  With its 6.7 million people MA reported 466 violent crimes per 100,000 population in 2010.  NI with about 1.8 million people reports 1600 violent offenses per 100,000 population in 2011.  US Police would characterize about half of the NI crimes as assault and battery.   Northern Ireland also reports a significantly lower homicide rate, at roughly 1 per 100,000 as compared to 3.5 per 100,000 in the Commonwealth.  Even with this summer’s increase in sectarian unrest, firearm crime in NI continues at a low rate.

It’s history and hate that maim and kill in Northern Ireland, the region’s bitter legacy from British partition and plantation.

And as that freight train from 100 years ago bears down on NI, PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott is justifiably demanding more leaders step up.  He told The Irish Times,

“We will continue to act as peacekeepers and to keep communities safe. However, others have a responsibility within the community and wider society to resolve the conflict and tensions surrounding parading.”

Northern Ireland needs its genuine community leadership from both sides of what has been a slowly healing sectarian divide.  The leaders of the state’s institutions — government, justice, industry, religion, athletic — should some forward.  The state needs them to be heard and seen on the streets of Belfast and Derry and in the country towns.  The community deserves a lot more help from Dublin and London, too.  Not in the form of armed personnel but in terms of leaders being present in support of peace and the PSNI.

Will the leadership of Northern Ireland rally to the cause of justice and peace?  I  do not know.

I know my prayers are with CC Baggott and his personnel and the decent people of the North that they suffer no serious injuries or deaths and that the PSNI comes through with their legitimacy still intact.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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