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North’s beleaguered police choosing sick days over work

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

With many officers taking early retirement, others calling in sick at an alarmingly high rate, and the mood of uncertainty hanging over the force as it faces some of the most vicious rioting Belfast has seen in decades, the morale of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland is being severely tested.

On Monday, the Policing Board met with the Northern Ireland security minister, Jane Kennedy, to ask for information on the number of arrests and prosecutions in relation to the current upsurge in violence, which made 2001 the worst year for bomb attacks since the IRA called its first cease-fire in 1994.

There has been criticism, especially from Nationalists, about what is seen as the lack of prosecutions in relation to the loyalist pipe bombing campaign against Catholics, which escalated to more than 300 attacks last year, compared to 117 in 2000, and the riots in North Belfast, where Catholics claim identifiable loyalist paramilitaries continue to defy the police.

As a sign of the new force’s difficulties, the illness rate among its members is in double digits, some placing it as high as 20 percent, compared to the average of 3 percent for British police.

“The police board has made it a priority to get it down from double figures,” said Alex Atwood, the Social Democratic and Labor Party’s representative on the new board, which came into operation late last year. Atwood, who is the SDLP’s assembly member for West Belfast, says the police are having to come to terms with downsizing and a change in milieu at the same time that it is being stretched on the ground because of the ongoing confrontations in North Belfast.

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“Put all that together — it’s a huge emotional issue as well as one of management,” he said.

When asked if he thought the sick-out rate was a symptom of demoralization in the service, he replied: “I don’t use the word demoralization. It’s a problem of adjustment.”

However, a veteran police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is a feeling of frustration within the ranks.

“You have to get a presidential decree to fire a plastic bullet,” he said. Officers are required to file a written report for every plastic bullet round they fire. “Nuala O’Loan will want to know why,” he said.

O’Loan is the ombudsman who recently wrote a highly critical report of the police handling of the Omagh bombing in 1998.

The veteran policeman said that about 60 officers have been injured in two nights of rioting in the Ardoyne area, around the Holy Cross Catholic girls’ school, where loyalists confronted the pupils’ parents last week, setting off another cycle of street violence.

“That’s the equivalent of two DMSUs,” he said, referring to the Divisional Mobile Support Units, the force’s anti-riot squads. He said PSNI’s occupational health unit has been “overwhelmed.”

“When you tell them you’re taking the early retirement package,” he said, “they say, ‘You lucky bastard.’ No one wants to stay in.”

This observation is disputed, however. Senior officers claim that it was not so much a case of demoralization but of “pressures on resources.”

Part of the problem, they insist, is that because of the delay in setting up the Police Board, officers started to leave before new recruits came in to replace them. Year three of the severance package offered to retiring RUC officers was already started before the first new recruits to PSNI joined up. During that period about 1,000 officers retired. “Six men are now asked to do the job of eight,” one senior officer said.

It was a temporary thing, this officer believed. “Many are happy with the changes. But any changes create tensions. And some of the changes make more sense if it was a peaceful society.”

Another senior officer denies allegations of demoralization.

“The mood in the canteen is the same as it was 10 or 15 years ago,” he told the Echo. While some are worried about the future, the situation is much more complex than allegations of demoralization imply, he believes.

The claim that the police are not being aggressive enough in pursuit of troublemakers is also hotly disputed.

“We are trained to have a graduated response to aggression,” said one, referring to the handling of riots. Senior police officers point out that the police are trained not to do anything that will make the riot worse. Confronting crowds of up to 500 means that sending in a snatch squad of 15 men to seize those identified as ringleaders was too dangerous for the officers involved and ran the risk of provoking even worse violence. Instead, videos are made of the crowds with a view to identifying and prosecuting the troublemakers at a later date. This week, after the most recent disturbances in North Belfast, three appeared in court on charges related to the rioting. At the same time, another 18 who were being held on charges related to the previous disturbances last year were freed on bail.

All agree on the enormous stress that the police must endure in riot situations where they are positioned between two warring mobs.

“A blast bomb can kill, as can a nail bomb,” said the veteran officer, in reference to some of the devices thrown during the riots. “But they’re trying to make us like the police in England — stand there all day and take it.”

In the meantime, as a sign of the importance of the policing issue, Richard Haass, the U.S. administrations envoy to Northern Ireland, was scheduled to meet with the Police Board on his visit to Belfast this week.

The SDLP’s Atwood is confident that PSNI will weather the storm.

“All the senior officers say that what they want is certainty about the future,” he said. “The Policing Board is what they’ve been looking for.”

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