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RUC: the politics of policing

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

Policing Northern Ireland has never been simple. The search for solutions to the problem of establishing a force acceptable to both communities is currently the task of the Independent Commission on Policing, which recently looked at some policing practices in the US. But while there are undoubtedly similarities between problems faced by police departments here, especially in inner cities, and those confronting the Royal Ulster Constabulary, there are difficulties which are peculiar to Northern Ireland and which have to be understood if the controversial issue is to be tackled. These difficulties have deep historical roots that shape the debate over such matters as the RUC’s composition, its paramilitary nature and its relationship to the nationalist community.

To begin with, policing Northern Ireland, has always been as much a matter of politics as it has been of law and order. Take the issue of composition, for example. When the RUC was created in 1922, 1,000 of the 3,000 positions in the new force were set aside for Catholics. However, Unionist suspicions meant that the RUC was discouraged from recruiting Catholics. Coupled with republican hostility toward the police, this soon made the goal of creating a force representative of the two communities in Northern Ireland an unrealistic one. The number of Catholics in the force peaked in 1922 at 21 percent. It continued to fall until by the 1990s the RUC was about 93 percent Protestant.

The RUC’s composition is one of the key problems that the Patten commission is examining. The problem is not just that Catholics may dislike or distrust the RUC. The IRA especially targeted Catholics who joined the force. Any attempt to redress the imbalance within the police has to confront the fact of intimidation. It is true that the peace process has eased these fears considerably. Last year, according to police figures, of the 5,000 applicants for places within the force, 23 percent were Catholic — almost a quarter. However, the situation remains volatile and any outbreak of republican violence or even a threat of a return to violence would quickly lead to a drop in Catholic applicants.

This is a reminder that the attempts to reform the RUC face problems not comparable to those faced by the police in inner city areas of the US. In Northern Ireland, there exists a heavily armed, politically motivated organization dedicated to preventing the RUC from ever being allowed back into the nationalist areas.

Since the RUC was set up partly to combat a highly organized threat, as well as to take care of the more quotidian tasks such as making sure public houses closed at the specified hour, it was always more akin to a gendarmerie. That is, it was a paramilitary as well as a regular police force. The two roles have frequently been in conflict and have led to calls for the force to be disarmed and "civilianized." In fact, the RUC is not like U.S. police forces, which are "routinely armed." Technically speaking, the RUC is an unarmed force.

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To arm or not to arm

At the beginning of the current crisis, the RUC was strongly criticized for its handling of the civil rights marches and the riots in Belfast in August 1969, during which three Catholic civilians were killed by police gunfire. The British government established a committee chaired by Lord Hunt which recommended a series of reforms, including the disarming of the force, the abolition of the part-time militia, the B-Specials, the changing of the police uniform from black to bottle green, the raising of a reserve force and the reduction of the RUC’s paramilitary duties. But within days of the recommendations being made public, some of the difficulties inherent to policing Northern Ireland became clear when during a riot a Protestant gunman murdered an RUC officer, who, thanks to the reforms recommended by the Hunt commission, was unarmed.

As the historian A.T.Q. Stewart has observed: "The Royal Irish Constabulary and the Royal Ulster Constabulary were each in turn criticized for allowing riots to develop, and failing to contain them when they did develop. If they were unarmed, it was recommended that they should be armed; if they used arms, it was recommended that they should be disarmed."

Disarmament went ahead in 1969, in spite of the deteriorating political situation. In September 1970, in a referendum held throughout the force, the RUC voted to remain unarmed. To this day arms are only issued for the personal protection of its members.

"We are not a routinely armed force," said an RUC spokesman. "An RUC officer can go on patrol without his gun and technically he can’t be stopped."

However, beginning in 1970 this was a choice that most RUC officers were unlikely to make, as the IRA started targeting RUC officers. At first, they were attacked only while on duty. But by the beginning of 1972, officers were being murdered at home, or if they were in the reserve, at work. It became necessary to remain armed not only on duty but off duty as well. Over the subsequent decades, more than 300 constables were killed mainly at the hands of the IRA.

The attempt to civilianize the RUC suffered a further set back in 1975 when the British government’s "Ulsterization" policy required that the police assume the leading security role in Northern Ireland. This meant in effect an increasing militarization of the police as it was put in the front line against the paramilitaries. With the ending of internment without trial, more and more pressure was put on the RUC to get results, in the form of convictions. This led to increasing allegations that it was ill-treating suspects, further alienating nationalists. As part of the "Ulsterization" policy, special police surveillance units were trained, as well as heavily armed support units. The latter carried out several controversial shootings. Six unarmed Catholics were killed between November and December 1982, five of them IRA and INLA members. An English policeman, John Stalker, headed a subsequent enquiry. Though Stalker found there was no "shoot-to-kill" policy, he severely criticized certain RUC units for being "out of control." Several senior RUC officers were accused of covering up and lying about the shootings.

This increased unease within the nationalist community about the RUC and has fueled Sinn Fein demands that the force has to be abolished. But those who defend or attack the RUC almost invariably do so from a given political standpoint. In response to Sinn Fein’s demands some Unionists are resisting any reform of the force at all, calling it a concession to terrorism. The problem is that these arguments often have little to do with the facts.

Ignoring facts

Sinn Fein’s allegations about the RUC’s pursuit of a "shoot-to-kill" policy ignore the fact that of the 3,643 deaths in the Troubles, only 53 are attributable to the police, according to the statistics in "An Index of Deaths From the Conflict in Ireland 1969-1993." (In comparison, the NYPD killed more than 100 civilians between 1992 and 1997, according to figures published by The New York Times.) Unionists, for their part, ignore the well-documented violations of human rights laid at the door of the RUC.

There is a deeper problem that will remain, even if the RUC is reformed, in ways acceptable to most Catholics. For almost a generation, whole areas of Northern Ireland have been in many ways outside of the control of the state. The forces of the state have been replaced to a large extent by paramilitary groups who carry out their own version of "policing," which often resembles more the practices of the Moslem fundamentalists of Afghanistan, than any thing resembling European policing standards. As well, the IRA, the UDA and UVF, run lucrative businesses and rackets within their own areas, which they view as their domain. These organizations will not cease to exist just because the political reasons for them may have diminished or become irrelevant. No police force regardless of its composition will be welcomed which will threaten to disrupt their money-making activities. They are now part of the social fabric.

It is not known what recommendations the Patten commission might produce. Its members have declined to speculate. But it is almost certain that they will advocate that the RUC learn the lessons of community policing, that a recruitment drive be launched to increase the representation of Catholics within the force, and that in order to make it more attractive to Catholics some RUC symbols will be changed and perhaps even the name itself be abandoned for something more politically neutral. In the meantime, it is likely that the Special Branch will be made part of the regular Criminal Investigation Department and some specialist units run down or disbanded. However, as with the issue of whether police officers are armed or unarmed, this will depend on the overall political situation.

This is because the Northern Ireland policing problem is a product of deeper political, social and historical problems. And whether or not it is yet possible to resolve those remains open to question.

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