Policing in a highly politicised environment

Policing in a highly politicised environment

Northern Ireland poses unique challenges to its police force. But the establishment of normal policing — unbiased towards either side of the community — has to be uppermost on the new Chief Constable’s agenda

I HAVE been to parties that were visited by the RUC because we were making too much noise.

The response of those of us in the house was always to turn off the music and apologise.

If someone was drunk and reckless and wanted to argue back the cooler heads told him to wise up. The point was to get the police out the door as quickly as possible and without giving them an excuse to take things further and perhaps enquire into what people were smoking.

During the worst of the pandemic when social distancing was mandatory the police were active in monitoring how people kept the rules.

We stayed away from funerals as required though republicans turned out in their hundreds to walk behind the cortege of Bobby Storey and the police kept back.

In February 2021 a group of people gathered in the Lower Ormeau Road area of Belfast to remember their neighbours shot dead in a loyalist attack on Sean Graham’s bookmakers. As they were breaking up two constables approached to speak to the organisers about the covid restrictions and to photograph them discreetly with body worn cameras.

The response of people gathered there was not normal or sensible. They shouted and swore at them. This was videoed and is online.

The immediate impulse was to exacerbate rather than calm the situation.

And many in the nationalist community supported them and criticised the police.

Andrée Murphy, writing in Belfast Media, said, “So when the families … were approached by the PSNI they reacted with disbelief.”

She said this ‘approach’ was “proof that the PSNI did indeed hold these families and our community concerned with truth, justice and care for victims in contempt”.

The then Chief Constable, Simon Byrne told the Policing Board that he took a call from the Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill and understood from her that if he did not discipline the two constables Sinn Féin might withdraw support for the police service.

Former IRA bomber and jail breaker Gerry Kelly is a Sinn Féin appointee on the Policing Board.

Byrne concluded that Kelly might be stood down.

Sinn Féin has since denied that this was said but the Chief Constable disciplined the two officers, understanding that he was placating Sinn Féin to avert a political crisis.

The two constables legally challenged their punishment and Mr Justice Scoffield ruled last month that the Chief Constable had acted unlawfully. Byrne has now resigned and the Policing Board is looking for someone to take his place.

But, regardless of whether anyone made a threat of Sinn Féin withdrawal from the Policing Board, the situation was already plain. The politicians and social media activists who took the side of people against these officers, and offered no criticism of their behaviour, did not accept policing of a kind that is normal elsewhere.

This will be a problem for the new Chief Constable. He or she will be scrutinised in office for any indication of pandering to nationalist touchiness. And since the charge is also common that loyalists are treated too gently, there will be similar scrutiny of how they are treated.

Simon Byrne appears to have felt that he had a responsibility to preserve political stability, even at the expense of dispassionate policing.

Now where would he have got that idea from? From the entire history of the peace process, of course.

When Sinn Féin sought to enter political negotiations, the government and other parties insisted that the IRA should first begin to disarm. At several stages, that demand was relaxed and deferred to keep Sinn Féin in the talks. The governments believed there would have been no peace process otherwise.

Sinn Féin demanded the abolition of the RUC, reviled as sectarian and brutal. Those demands were met through Patten Commission reforms years before the IRA confirmed an enduring ceasefire and decommissioned large stocks of weapons. That must have felt to republicans like a victory.

Byrne may have felt that he was following a pragmatic course set down by John Major and Tony Blair and never formally closed off.

There have been moments when the Sinn Féin leadership was brave and positive in its endorsement of the PSNI, as when Martin McGuinness stood with the then Chief Constable Hugh Orde to condemn attacks on the police and on soldiers. He said those who carried out such attacks were ‘traitors to the island of Ireland’.

Martin McGuinness had previously said he would not be an informer. Do we really believe that this former IRA leader, when deputy First Minister, would have shared with the police any information he had on countless murders and other crimes, let alone the arms stocks that his former quartermaster, Michael McKevitt might have taken with him when he split from the Provos? Well, maybe. There are differing opinions on that even within the republican community.

There will be another time when nationalists on the street, reasonably suspected of breaking the law, will scream about sectarian abuse and discrimination when police officers on duty curtail them, as police in London or Dublin would. It will be better for everyone if, when that happens, someone from Sinn Féin tells them to wise up and cool down.