The Northern Irish peace process appears to be in turmoil. Local politicians have made an appeal for the US as well as the British and Irish governments to step in and help “kick-start” the “faltering” peace process. The current political impasse in the polity stems from the inability of local parties to agree on several issues including welfare reform, parades, flags, and notably dealing with the past. The lack of consensus on how to deal with the past, from addressing victims’ needs to investigating unsolved crimes, remains a significant obstacle for peacebuilding as well as policing an ethno-politically divided post-conflict society. Crucially, the disputes over contested parades, the illegal flying of flags, and the legacy of the past conflict have continued to test the strength of the reformed police service.
Northern Ireland’s police reform is often held up as a model for other post-conflict countries. Indeed, the transformation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has been mostly successful. Following the reforms, the PSNI emerged as more accountable, professional, and legitimate police service than its predecessor. However, despite the significant gains made in transforming the police, the events of the past continue to resurface.
Police reform was a crucial issue for peacebuilding to emerge and take root in Northern Ireland. Following the signing of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, the need for reforms were clear. The RUC was composed of largely Protestant officers and was seen as a tool of state oppression by the nationalist/republican/Catholic community. In 1999, the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland produced a report that became widely known as the “Patten Report,” after the chair Chris Patten, a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The Patten Report was a comprehensive document that touched on diverse aspects of the reforms, including the name change.
Crucially, the Patten report noted the contentious nature of the history of policing in the polity and outlined the need for stronger community involvement. However, in requiring greater community participation, the PSNI became susceptible to political and civil society demands to police the past in order to secure continued community support to police the present.
As a result, the PSNI has found itself unable to address the competing narratives and political battles over the past. While the nationalist/republican community pushes for more investigations in the role of the state during the conflict, unionist/loyalist community calls for more attention to be paid to crimes committed by the republican paramilitary groups. For example, the leading republican political party, Sinn Féin, condemned the Historical Enquiries Team (HET) – established by former PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde in 2005 to investigate unsolved crimes – for being too soft on state violence. Unionist politicians criticized the police for focusing on past loyalist violence while ignoring republican crimes. At the same time, families of victims have also criticized the police for not doing enough to establish who killed their loved ones.
In response to such criticisms, a 2013 review by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary found that the police investigated past crimes involving state actors with “less rigor” than paramilitary related murders. In August 2014, this led Sir Hugh Orde to claim HET was “set up to fail” by the Inspectorate and, as a consequence, “the police could not resolve” historical crimes “alone.”
Sir Hugh’s claims are easily understood when viewed within the wider peace process. Earlier in the year, PSNI responded to unionist and victims criticisms and arrested Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, in relation to a historical murder enquiry. In response, Sinn Féin accused the PSNI of being involved in an “attempt to settle old scores” by “an embittered rump of the old RUC” determined to undermine progress made in the peace process. However, when the PSNI started criminal investigations involving members of the British Army accused of shooting Catholic civilians on ‘Bloody Sunday’ in 1972, unionists claimed such actions exposed “the perversity at the heart of dealing with the past,” where old and retired soldiers will be prosecuted while former republican combatants will evade investigations into historical crimes.
Not surprisingly, these challenges have left the PSNI struggling to deal with investigating the past while trying to police the present and maintain cross-community support.
Recently, in an attempt to regain community confidence, the new PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton highlighted the need for politicians and civil society to start addressing the history of the conflict and remaining contentious issues, such as historical enquiries, the flying of the Union flag, and parades. As he argues, “action is needed if policing, and indeed our peace process, is not to be dragged backward.” Hamilton is well aware that policing the past requires the support of political elites and civil society. Therefore, the case of Northern Ireland clearly shows that police reform cannot be seen as merely a technical task that exists apart from the broader peacebuilding process. If policing is to build on reforms, it needs both political and civil society support, particularly when trying to deal with the past and overcome historical suspicions of favouring one side of the community over another.
Still, much has changed since the initial Patten reforms some fifteen years ago. Close to 30 percent of the police service is made up of individuals from Catholic backgrounds. Police increasingly engage with all sections of the community through several community outreach programmes. The PSNI also reports a high satisfaction rate with its conduct. In 2007, almost a decade after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, Sinn Féin joined the Policing Board – thereby giving its support and endorsement to the PSNI. This significant decision played an important role in furthering the legitimacy of the PSNI in the nationalist/republican community, which actively participates in the new Police and Community Safety Partnerships.
Recent events in the peace process demonstrate that, despite positive reforms and improving confidence in policing, the PSNI continues to expose its own shortcomings in trying to police a still deeply divided society. While the Patten Report was largely silent on the dealing with the past, the PSNI has been at the forefront of initiatives for tackling the unsolved murders and abuses committed during the almost thirty year period of conflict in Northern Ireland known as the Troubles. However, experiences from the HET investigations demonstrates that when the local police service attempts to investigate the murders committed during the Troubles it is found to be inconsistent. It is also found to be “less rigorous” in dealing with state actors.
In attempting to find a balanced approach to policing, one keeping within the new political realities of the peace process, a police service like the PSNI discovers more of what it cannot do as much as what it can do. As Chief Constable Hamilton indicated, if the PSNI is to survive the current turmoil, something new needs to happen. In his view, unless politicians and civil society can resolve the past, policing will always remain susceptible to the political machinations of peace processing, no matter what reforms are developed. Lessons from the PSNI indicate that unless new ways are found to deal with past crimes, policing the present will also become more difficult.
Branka Marijan is a PhD candidate in Global Governance at Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo.
Seán Brennan is a PhD candidate at School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen’s University Belfast.