Northern Ireland: Who will police the police?

The one issue that the Northern Ireland peace accord has not addressed is the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its repressive ways.


Margaret Spillane
May 20, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

While I was in Belfast during the summer of 1995 -- right in the middle of the Northern Ireland cease-fire that miraculously lifted bomb-sniffing dogs and armored soldiers from everyday life there -- the Northern Ireland Office bankrolled a series of festive billboards. Splashed across the signs were the closing words of native son Van Morrison's "Coney Island": "Wouldn't it be great if it could be like this all the time?"

On TV spots, Morrison's "Days Like This" played over images of two little boys -- one Protestant, one Catholic -- frolicking together near the magnificent North Antrim coast. "Everything falls into place with the flick of a switch,/Yes my mama told me there'd be days like this."

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Belfasters, in war or peace one of the most extroverted and friendly urban populations anywhere, appeared to be enjoying their city with gusto, gleefully driving through that summer's spectacularly Mediterranean weather on downtown streets that only months earlier had been a labyrinth of barricades and police checkpoints. Jokes abounded about how the Royal Ulster Constabulary, interrogation artists who had distinguished themselves as compressors of skulls and testicles, were now self-consciously shuffling around like beat cops, pointing out faulty taillights and writing parking tickets.

This charming picture of lethal enforcers suddenly beating their Heckler and Koch machine guns into ploughshares was, however, far away from reality. While tourists were busy discovering the delights of the newly relaxed-looking six counties and journalists ceasing to call Belfast's Europa Hotel the Beirut Hilton, the RUC was still making arrests the old-fashioned way. As civil rights lawyer Rosemary Nelson was told when she filed a criminal complaint against an officer for injuries inflicted on a client while in custody, "We've been doing whatever the fuck we want for 30 years, and 30 years from now we'll be doing the same." Another Nelson client, Michael Carragher (whose brother Fergal had been shot dead at a checkpoint), was beaten so severely while detained in one of the RUC's infamous "holding units" that the doctor who examined him told the interrogators that Carragher needed immediate hospitalization. The doctor's plea was ignored.

Nelson has filed thousands of criminal complaints against the RUC on behalf of such clients, and every one has been thrown out (though civil courts pay out huge damages daily for the same claims). She has received death threats from the RUC, and lies in bed at night wondering if her three children will witness what the children of her fellow human-rights lawyer Pat Finucane did: their parent murdered in a spray of death-squad bullets as the family sat down to dinner. After all, an RUC officer had predicted Finucane's death a few weeks before it happened.

It is for such reasons that Friday's cross-border referendum on the historic Northern Ireland peace accord is an occasion for vigilance as well as for hope. The agreement provides for a democratically elected Northern Ireland assembly; a North-South council of ministers empowered to create cross-border policies in such areas as education, environment, social welfare and economic development; possible early release for prisoners affiliated with Sinn Fein and those loyalist parties that sat at the negotiating table; the relinquishing by the Republic of Ireland of its constitutional claims to Ulster; demilitarization on all sides, from the British army to the loyalist and republican paramilitaries, within two years; and restructuring of the police.

However, these unprecedented fruits of cooperation could fall apart from within, Nelson told me recently, because "there's very, very little focus on human rights, and I don't think a political settlement can exclude human rights abuses."

While the Belfast Agreement mandates police reform over two years, there is no reining in of the broad repressive powers granted the RUC. As Nelson points out, "When someone is picked up by the RUC and taken to a detention center, the right to a fair trial dies right there." A person can be detained up to seven days with no charges preferred and can be deprived of legal advice for 48 hours. Interrogations often continue day and night, with legal counsel barred from the proceedings. And under the
Criminal Evidence Order, a client's right to silence can be used in court to corroborate any evidence the police present.

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In the weeks leading up to the accord, evidence of the full range of RUC abuses began to emerge. In a report to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N. rapporteur to Northern Ireland, Dr. Param Cumaraswami, described how the civil and political rights of RUC detainees were systematically suspended. In particular, the U.N. report cited the degree to which lawyers for nationalist political prisoners are targeted by the RUC for harrassment, surveillance and death threats.

Coming on the heels of the U.N. report is a book called "The Committee," by Irish investigative reporter Sean McPhilemy. The book, published in the United States by Roberts Rinehart, is an expansion of a 1991 British television documentary and it reveals how high-ranking RUC and British Army officers, along with Ulster Unionist businesspeople, clergy and politicians, worked together to select nationalist targets for assassination by loyalist hit men.

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Whether and how far the RUC should be reformed is one of the most contentious issues in the referendum campaign. Nationalists, who for years have been plastering the North with signs reading "RUC: 93 Percent Protestant, 100 Percent Loyalist," see no solution short of disbanding the RUC and building an entirely new police force. Unionists largely believe the RUC to be an effective bulwark against
terrorism. Many "no" votes in Friday's referendum are expected to come from Unionists who fear that the RUC is going to lose not only its recognizability but even its name. Ronnie Flanagan, chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, recently enthused to London's Daily Telegraph that "it makes us proud" to have "a title conferred by royal charter. There are
few policing organizations in the world that enjoy that privilege."

Flanagan is also bucking any suggestion that former paramilitaries might be allowed to join a newly configured police force. This is as
unrealistic as it is shortsighted: Apart from the violence emanating from "The Troubles," the streets of Northern Irish cities have been and continue to be astonishingly safe -- and the credit for this goes not to the RUC but to the paramilitaries who constitute the grass-roots law enforcement in their respective communities.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently made a move that may help precisely because it provides an equal-opportunity irritant: He named Chris Patten, Britain's final governor in Hong Kong, as head of an independent body looking to reform Northern Irish law enforcement. Patten is a former Conservative Party MP, so it's hard to imagine a large nationalist constituency cheering his appointment. But Unionists could find as much to
be worried about: Patten is a Catholic, who as a junior minister to
Northern Ireland once supported the predominantly Catholic Derry City Council's shortening of its name from Londonderry. And there are other factors that make him an interesting choice: While Patten had the thankless job of lowering the British flag on Hong Kong, he did so only after instituting wide-ranging democratic reforms there that infuriated Foreign Office mandarins who'd been accustomed to running the island like
a fiefdom.

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But the huge task of transforming the notoriously sectarian RUC into a representative, accountable policing body with widespread community support will require more than the unusual talents of a maverick Tory Catholic. There will need to be a vigorous international presence, even though many Unionists still
object to any such idea as "outside interference." They might want to look to South Africa, whose relatively rapid evolution to postapartheid policing required not only considerable outside financial support for training purposes but also
community-policing expertise from the U.S., Japan and elsewhere. Nor was the Mandela government too proud to call upon outside civil liberties scholars to help rewrite South Africa's criminal laws.

The good news about Northern Ireland is that the 30-year-old war appears to be over. While there will likely be further deaths and acts of destruction caused by the marginalized rejectionist fringes on each side, the Northern Irish people, Protestant and Catholic, are overwhelmingly opposed to a resumption of war.
Recently, when the Protestant demagogue Rev. Ian Paisley tried to address the international press corps about the evils of the settlement, young and middle-aged loyalists drowned out his hellfire rhetoric with shouts of "Dinosaur!" and "You sent one generation of loyalists to prison, you won't be sending another!"

The sense on the streets of Northern Ireland
is not only that a settlement is a good thing, but that citizens at the grass roots are confident they can sustain it. That feeling will remain only if the day-to-day justice issues are dealt with intelligently and swiftly. If it remains business as usual at Royal Ulster Constabulary headquarters, and Rosemary Nelson's clients continue to emerge battered and bloody from police interrogation, then the euphoria and the hopes will quickly evaporate.

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Margaret Spillane

Margaret Spillane writes frequently about politics and culture.

MORE FROM Margaret Spillane


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