Policing no laughing matter in the North

It has often been said that the nature of a country is reflected in the state of its prisons. We should add to that by including the nature of policing in any society.

Think, for example, of the Six Counties before the Good Friday Agreement and its police, the RUC, a force that epitomised the essence of the political entity it served: heavily armed, aggressive, and determined above all else to maintain unionist ascendancy, rather than a commitment to civil justice, an organisation well suited to the Northern Ireland state that had created it.

The successor to the RUC offers a similar insight into the condition of the North’s body politic, although from a somewhat different angle. The PSNI’s current casebook is reading more like a recurring soap opera than a coherent account of law and order in the field. And yet it would be unwise not to put this latest episode in the context of an armed organisation answerable to a failing political entity.

Let’s briefly recap.

In April this year PSNI documents that included a rough itinerary of President Joe Biden’s visit to Belfast were found lying in a street in the city. At the time a police spokesperson said an investigation into the breach was under way. Just so, you might say. Nevertheless, a mere two months after that a laptop and documents containing sensitive information about two hundred PSNI personnel were stolen from a parked car belonging to a senior member of the force.

Then, of course, came the spectacular accidental disclosure of ten thousand police names in early August. This gaff was followed by the news that yet another senior officer had blundered by setting a laptop and files on the rooftop of his car before driving off, scattering computer and documents across the M2 motorway.

Nevertheless, and in spite of this series of unsettling setbacks, the surefooted and steady chief constable, Simon Byrne, knew exactly what to do. Unselfishly cutting short his family holiday, he flew back to Belfast and immediately took advice from his PR consultants. Using the old stage magician’s stratagem of diverting attention from the core matter, Simon quickly gave a press conference and altered the focus. Rather than offering a credible explanation for the utter incompetence of his organisation, he solemnly informed his listeners that the leaked information was in the hands of those awful “dissidents.”

Fortunately for the chief constable, he was not left to shoulder all the responsibility alone. The cross-community, all-party body charged with supervising the activities of the PSNI and its management, the Policing Board, met and reaffirmed its confidence in the chief constable and his senior staff.

Worryingly, though, this farce is far from comical. The PSNI is a several thousand-strong armed body with a sometimes questionable record. While not nearly as toxic as its predecessor, there remain concerns relating to its impartiality as well as its competence.

Over a five-year period, 2016–2020, close to twice as many Catholics as Protestants were arrested and charged—and that was according to the PSNI’s own statistics.¹ As a spokesperson for the human rights group Committee on the Administration of Justice said at the time, the figures showed a stark disparity on the basis of community background.

Then there was the ominous disparity between the treatment of different protesting groups. In June 2020 seventy fines were handed out to Black Lives Matter demonstrators for allegedly breaching covid-19 containment regulations.² Six days later a Save Our Monuments protest in Belfast organised by British army veterans and loyalists passed off without the police issuing any fines.

It would be wrong, however, to view the practice of policing in the Six Counties as an aberration of itself, because this latest policing mess is not something out of keeping with how the administration of the Six Counties is functioning, or malfunctioning, to be more exact.

For starters, the devolved administration at Stormont is once again in lock-down, this time as a result of the DUP’s objections to the well-forecast and detailed implementation of Brexit. This was—difficult though it may now be to believe—a deal the party greatly favoured. Not only did it financially assist the leave campaign but thereafter it supported the Tory government’s “Get Brexit done.” Yet, as a recent article in the Financial Times put it, “the UK’s Brexiters pursued a form of Brexit and made promises that could only result in weakening Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.”³

Let that sink in. The DUP, the largest unionist party in the North and supposedly a staunch advocate of the sovereignty of the British Parliament over Northern Ireland’s affairs, now stubbornly refusing to accept the House of Commons’ overwhelming vote in favour of the Windsor framework; a unionist party dedicated to maintaining the constitutional position of the Six Counties within the United Kingdom while in effect undermining this very objective.

The latest episode in the DUP’s continuing drama has echoes of the one affecting the PSNI. Recently the communiqué of the party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, to his members was leaked to the media. Though probably leaked deliberately, it showed an organisation in deep disarray and one without a clear, agreed strategy on how to break out of its self-inflicted cul-de-sac.

All very amusing for those of us who don’t vote DUP, but only up to a point. The North now appears to many on the outside to be settled and peaceful almost to the point of being boring. Appearances, however, can be deceptive, and especially so in a contested space such as the Six Counties.

Rapidly changing demographics—as evidenced by the latest census, a Sinn Féin first minister elect, a British public and its government indifferent to Northern Irish affairs—are unsettling factors for a significant section of unionism, a section of the community agitated by such mundane happenings as bilingual road signage or GAA matches being broadcast on the BBC.

Consider, then, how much more disturbing for these people it would be if the first minister and her party’s reasonable request for a border poll were to be granted. Consider, then, the prospect of the armed PSNI under the command of its current management and supervised by the Northern Ireland Policing Board dealing with a situation such as that.

Maybe now you can see why policing is still no laughing matter in the North.

  1. Rory Winters, “Almost twice the number of Catholics than Protestants arrested by PSNI,” Irish Times, 10 December 2021 (https://tinyurl.com/ms3ej559).
  2. Julian O’Neill, “PSNI chief ‘sorry’ over policing at Black Lives Matter protests,” BBC News, 22 December 2020 (https://tinyurl.com/525fe6xc)
  3. Stephen Bush, “British neglect risks Northern Ireland’s future,” Financial Times, 16 August 2023.