Nationalists are not so sure about the policing system they initially embraced

Posted By: June 16, 2019

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, June 15, 2019

Why should a police officer’s religion matter? The question arises from the outgoing chief constable’s criticism of Nationalist politicians for not encouraging more Catholics to join the PSNI.

George Hamilton’s aim is presumably to achieve 50-50 recruitment from Protestants and Catholics. That might mean giving some Catholics preferential treatment over similarly or better qualified Protestants, to achieve what is known as a religious balance.

The chief constable is not really suggesting that the chair of an interview panel might say: “You are an excellent candidate, but because you call yourself a Protestant, we cannot appoint you. Instead, we are appointing someone with the same qualifications, but who these days passes for what is considered to be a Catholic.”

But 50-50 recruitment would almost inevitably mean preferential treatment on the basis of religion, fifty years after the civil rights movement fought to oppose discrimination.

So how valid is the argument in favor of 50-50 PSNI recruitment? You will have your own view on the purpose of policing, but generally in most societies we might agree that it is to enforce the law, protect the lives and liberties of citizens and defend the institutions of the state.

Although policing is more extensive than that, we can still see that the history of policing here does not fit with that broad definition.

The RUC enforced repressive laws including the Special Powers Act, attacked the lives and liberties of some citizens and defended not just the state’s institutions, but its very existence. The RUC was formed as the northern state’s first line of defense, the same role which the RIC played in defending the British administration in Ireland before partition.

That made the RUC the first point of attack in IRA campaigns and during the latest troubles, over 300 RUC officers gave their lives and almost 9,000 were injured. In human terms their deaths caused immense pain and loss. In political terms the killings did nothing to threaten the state’s existence.

The RUC’s difficulty was that Unionism used it as the physical embodiment of an unfair state, so that civic law and political dominance became interwoven. It was surprising, therefore, that when the RUC was replaced by the PSNI in 2001, there was no attempt to separate political policing from civic policing. The new Stormont embraced the old problem.

At the time, I favored the creation (or at least a debate about the creation) of two new policing bodies. The political role would be confined to a separate, smaller organization. It could have inherited the legacy issues which now burden the PSNI and left civic policing free from the past. One body could have been a police force. The other could have been a police service.

We will never know if two separate policing organizations might have worked, but by inheriting the RUC’s legacy, the PSNI allowed itself to be seen as a less than impartial organization. It should have been a completely new body, free from the past and free from politics. Instead, Nationalists embraced a flawed policing system and are now not so sure about it.

That lingering doubt was reinforced recently by the arrest of two distinguished journalists who were investigating possible police collusion in the Loughinisland massacre, while the killers remain at large.

Nationalists still use the PSNI to report routine issues such as road accidents, but there appears to be a residual distrust of what some Nationalists see as a political police force, particularly over what appears to be its tolerance of loyalist para-militarism.

As with much of what flowed from the Good Friday Agreement, including the creation of a flawed Stormont, getting the first decision wrong on policing meant that all subsequent decisions offered a choice between wrongs. Today we have a choice of forcing 50-50 recruitment or allowing a declining rate of Catholic applicants. Both are wrong, because it is the wrong policing model.

The PSNI has other challenges beyond the religious beliefs of its officers. It appears to be a large, lumbering public sector bureaucracy, which is not fully in tune with the needs of its customers. This view is supported by the fact that the Policing Board has an unprecedented 50 staff, which raises the question as to which model of governance they think they are using. (Should the board and its staff be recruited on a 50-50 basis?)

The chances of a genuinely civic or community policing service appear remote, but should it ever happen, perhaps we should immediately launch a campaign for 50-50 recruitment to it. Yes, that’s right: 50 per cent male and 50 per cent female. Now, wouldn’t that be a welcome change from sectarian head-counting?