A mixed record of policing in Northern Ireland has segued into questions about the effectiveness of current investigations into major crimes — particularly with the Stormont impasse hindering the release of essential funding for public services. Malachi O'Doherty reports
I USED to have a little sideline training the RUC, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
I was part of what was called a Community Awareness Programme aimed at getting new recruits to be better informed about the Catholic community, of which I was notionally a part.
On my first day training police probationers at Gough Barracks in Armagh, I brought in a copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, pinned it to the wall and played the class some songs from The Wolfe Tones.
My students had all, I suspect, been pre-warned not to give me a hard time but I learned a lot in that session. Very little that I said to them was new. I had started with an assumption of too great ignorance among them and they were right to be sniffy.
Still, in the following years, meeting a different group at every session, never having one group more than once, my understanding grew of what makes a peeler. I never got a chance to make a better first impression on the first class.
Now I bridle at the stock presentation of the RUC as a malign sectarian force. Most that I met among them had a strong sense of service and an ambition to do well within their careers, and I think that was borne out by the readiness with which they accepted major reforms when they were turned into the PSNI, the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
One day there was a visitor to the training centre and I got to sit at the back of the class. This visitor was a senior officer from an English force. He said he was there to explain the reality of policing on the reduced numbers and limited resources they would have in the new Northern Ireland.
He said not every crime would be investigated, not even burglaries, and that often the job of the copper was to go to the house and give the victim a leaflet and advice on claiming insurance.
One of the current concerns about past policing in Northern Ireland and England is that even then major crimes were not properly investigated, whether the murder in Ballypatrick Forest of German backpacker Maria Inga Hauser in 1988 or the killing of Stephen Lawrence in 1993.
Campaigns around the murders of Maria Travers (1983), Pat Finucane (1987) and John Larmour (1988) all point to police failings.
The English officer might not have understood that there were huge flaws in Northern Irish policing too, accounted for by the distraction of counter terrorist responsibilities and the disinclination of much of the public to have dealings with them, to be seen going into a police station or to have police officers call at their door.
Much of policing then was more concerned to gather intelligence to hinder terrorism than evidence to convict suspects.
Last week the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, Simon Byrne, outlined the damage likely to be cause by more cuts to the policing budget.
Major public events might not be policed as fully as they had been in the past.
We are facing cuts in all services because the DUP is currently boycotting the Executive and some of us are now wondering if devolution was such a good idea when it has given the most obstreperous parties an additional tool for disruption, walking out of government and choking the allocation of essential funding to public services.
The police tried withdrawing from monitoring public events before and the result was calamity.
In March 1988 they stayed away from the funerals of three IRA operatives shot dead by the SAS in Gibraltar while planning a bomb attack there.
Those funerals were attacked by the loyalist hoodlum Michael Stone. You can still see footage of the attack on YouTube.
Then later the same week, a crowd at the funeral of one of Stone’s victims, was panicked by a car that met the funeral head on and tried to reverse sharply away from it. As that crowd swarmed the car one of those inside produced a pistol. Corporals Wood and Howes were taken out, stripped and tortured, shot dead by the IRA and dumped on waste ground.
Though events like these are unlikely to recur, the lesson is that the policing of the aftermath of an un-policed parade may prove more expensive than simply turning up might have been.
There are lessons from the past that have been forgotten.
Arguably the huge violence that arose from the civil rights campaign in the late 1960s had more to do with police incompetence and undermanning than with the simple sectarian malice by which some prefer to explain it.
Few can doubt that the PSNI handle difficult parades and riots a lot better now than the RUC did in the early days of the Troubles.
But if they are starved of resources and short of recruits such that they can hardly manage the job of peace time policing, what hope would they have if the old traditions of insurgency and sectarian warfare reasserted themselves