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The Policing Problem


Liam O Ruairc
Starry Plough, December/January 2002


On the 4th of November 2001, the RUC will change its name to “Police Service of Northern Ireland”. This is a result of the policing reforms set up by the British Government under the pressure of Nationalists and Republican after the April 1998 Stormont deal. Reforms are necessary because policing in Northern Ireland differs significantly from the norm in standard Western capitalist societies.

Policing in the North has a primarily political role. The organisation of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is designed for the primary purpose of counter-insurgency and political control, to which the activity of “normal policing” is subordinated. A change of name and emblems will not change its nature or purpose. Policing in the North also suffers from the problem that it suffers from partial legitimacy and acceptability among the public. A number of reasons explain this. The RUC is a 92% Protestant force. The RUC blame the lack of Catholics within their ranks on the fact that when Catholics join the police, they risk being ostracised by Nationalists and Republicans or being killed by the IRA or the INLA. While there is some evidence to support this thesis, it is nevertheless based on the assumption that members of the Catholic community would be keen to join in the absence of such threat. This assumption ignores the fact that there exists a deep mistrust of the RUC, not just among Republicans, but within the wider Catholic population. It is perceived to be a sectarian unionist force instead of “neutral” and “professional”.

If there is empirical basis to think that many members of the RUC are also active in the Orange Order or unionist and loyalist groups or have Protestant and Unionist ethos, it is difficult to assess the extent to which the police force as a whole is characterised by a degree of latent sectarianism. However, what is not in doubt is that the RUC has been involved in a number of incidents which have done little to inspire the confidence of the Catholic community in the political impartiality of the force. There are differential standards of policing applied to Catholic and Protestants. Recently this has been illustrated (for example in North Belfast) by the fact that the controversial plastic and rubber bullets have been used more readily and more extensively when the rioters were nationalists than when they were loyalists. There is also evidence to suggest that there has been collusion between the RUC and loyalists paramilitary organisations - just think of the Rosemary Nelson case - although it is difficult to establish to which degree and at what level. Members of the RUC have also been convicted of belonging and acting in loyalist groups such as the UVF or the UDA.

Even if the new police service succeeds in having a 50% Catholic membership, this will not alter the fact that it is fundamentally a Crown force. The old RIC had a majority of Catholic members, but that did not make it more “nationalist” or less “unionist” – it was still an instrument of Dublin Castle.

The reputation of the RUC has been tarnished by incidents such as the Stalker affair or the condemnation of the force by international human rights bodies for its ill-treatment of suspected Republican activists during interrogation. Defenders of the RUC point out that no police force in the world is perfect, and that the things that are usually reproached to the RUC could also be reproached to other police forces: for example, the Gardai has also been accused of ill-treatment of suspects in custody, it has also been involved in controversial “shoot-to-kill” incidents etc. The fact that there are a few “bad apples” within the RUC should not discredit the force as a whole. It is not possible to infer a system of inherent deviance from a couple of “bad apples”. Those who blame just a few “bad apples” or “rogue officers” for RUC misconduct overlook the structural and organisational determinants of police deviance. There is considerable evidence (i.e. the Stalker affair: conspiracy of silence, dirty tricks campaign, etc) that senior officers will give tacit support or tolerate organisational deviance if it perceived to be in line with the interests and objectives of the organisation. The force is reluctant to admit deviance (for example, ill treatment in custody was denied on the basis that injuries were self-inflicted) and when it is forced to face the facts, there is a marked reluctance to send to trial and convict officers involved: no RUC member has been convicted of murder while on duty. The result is a culture of virtual impunity. The “rule of law” makes no difference.

Defenders of the policing system – and it is one of their major arguments - say that police officers and soldiers are subjected to the rule of law and are constrained to act within the law. Whether or not the police acts within or is restrained by the “rule of law” is entirely scholastic if the law itself enables many of the controversial practices of the RUC to take place. The present legal framework (based on the concept of “reasonable force” and not complying with international standards) is too vague and flexible to impose a standard of behaviour preventing the excessive use of force. The fact that RUC officers who were involved in all these controversial aspects of policing are allowed to join the PSNI and will not be prosecuted gives reasons to think that little has changed. The SDLP supports the new police force. It is a matter of time before Sinn Fein also does. The party has already dropped the “Disband the RUC !” slogan, replacing it with “Implement Patten’’! Republican Socialists will not support the new police force. They will never ask young people to join it, no more than they ask to join the Gardai, the NYPD or the Metropolitan police. For Republican Socialists know that the repressive apparatuses of the state – whether in a sectarian state like the North, a racist one like Israel, or a “normal democratic” state like Denmark or Canada - will always defend the interests of the ruling classes. Police forces owe their allegiance to the ruling classes - Republican Socialists only owe their allegiance to the working class.



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