This week’s publication of the report into the future of policing in Northern Ireland looks set to deepen still further the divisions within the unionist and British establishments.
Even before the recommendations of Chris Patten’s commission officially saw the light of day, the heavily leaked document brought forth cries of anguish from unionist leaders. John Taylor, deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, described the proposals as “dynamite”, likely to deal “the final blow to the Belfast agreement”. It seems possible that the review of the whole peace process under former US senator George Mitchell will effectively have to be suspended for a week or so as a result of the outcry.
The UUP cannot even stomach what The Daily Telegraph described as “symbolic changes”, such as the renaming of the Royal Ulster Constabulary as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (September 4). And, as for scrapping the RUC’s present uniform and insignia, the oath of loyalty to the queen, hauling down the union flag and removing portraits of Elizabeth Windsor from police stations across the Six Counties, these were just beyond the pale for loyalism.
There are of course proposals that amounted to much more than symbolism. Leaked recommendations to decommission 3,000 reservists and, more importantly, to devolve some powers to 26 local police authorities, with rights to hire their own extra forces, threw the unionists into apoplexy. These new authorities, despite working under a central police committee, would consist largely of local politicians and opens up the possibility of some of them falling under the control of Sinn Féin, or parties associated with loyalist death squads.
UUP leader David Trimble was beside himself at the “ghastly prospect” of “paramilitaries taking over both policing and judicial functions”, although Patten himself ridiculed “suggestions that we are intending to Balkanise the police service in Northern Ireland” as “straightforward fabrication” (New Statesman September 3).
The reason why the unionists are unable to contain their fury at such proposals is plain to see. The RUC, founded in 1922, is the very epitome of the protestant ascendancy, and even today is only around eight percent catholic. It is, as An Phoblacht so aptly remarked, “a unionist police force for a unionist people in a unionist state” (September 2). The reaction of Trimble, Taylor and co to such “cosmetic changes”, the paper correctly pointed out, “exposes their inability to deal with nationalists or move towards any understanding”.
An Phoblacht reported that “community leaders and human rights activists” had issued a 10-point checklist against which the Patten recommendations ought to be tested. For example, “Will there be 43% nationalists at all ranks and within all departments of the new service?”; “Will members of the new service be banned from the loyal orders and similar secret organisations bound by oaths?”; “Will former RUC members applying to join the new policing service be screened to ensure that they have not been involved in human rights abuses?”; and “Will members of the new service be dismissed if they ill-treat any section of the community?” The Sinn Féin-inspired points also included a call for accountability - not only to “the public”, but to “the Irish government”.
The British government has no intention whatsoever of attempting to meet SF’s criteria for a ‘non-sectarian police force’. Certainly Blair wants to end overt anti-catholic discrimination, but he knows that an immediate cull of loyalists would finally wreck the peace process, if not lead to open rebellion. The same edition of An Phoblacht reports that a pro-RUC rally in Belfast has been jointly organised by the “Unionist Information Service” and “Friends of the Union” for September 18. It is due to be addressed by “former members” of the RUC.
Nevertheless there is no doubt that Blair needs to take urgent steps to at least neutralise the mistrust overwhelmingly felt for the police by nationalist/republican working class communities. The no-go areas established by militant resistance to British and Six County forces in the early 70s have long since been physically repressed. But the RUC cannot operate as a normal bourgeois police body in, for instance, the Bogside or West Belfast. Such neighbourhoods are effectively hostile zones for the state’s forces.
This fact was explicitly recognised by Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam when she addressed school students in Carrickfergus last week. She stated:
“Life in Northern Ireland is sometimes not as straightforward as it would be elsewhere. When the IRA ordered teenagers to leave Dungannon last week, some at least - small in number - in the local community supported that action because they could not support the police. That I find very disturbing.”
She is of course understating the total opposition felt by nationalists towards the RUC. A frank admission that the IRA enjoys the passive support of the majority in working class catholic areas would fly in the face of claims that the ‘men of violence’ were no more than mindless thugs, isolated from the community. The “widespread condemnation” of the ‘inhuman’ IRA for exiling the four Dungannon youths, for employing “classic, fascist tactics” (Irish Times August 31), does not correspond to reality.
The Daily Telegraph, hardly renowned for its republican sympathies, gave a more accurate refection of the attitude of Fairmount Park and Ballygawley Road residents to the youths and the IRA: “I’m no Provo,” a middle-aged woman was reported as saying, “but they’ve done the right thing this time” (September 4). The Telegraph continued: “The prevailing attitude is that the victims of paramilitary punishment are ‘no-marks’, guilty of burglary, car theft and attacks on the elderly and that they deserve what they get.”
The IRA claimed to have taken such extreme measures “as a last resort”, because of the absence of “an acceptable police force”. In fact even the RUC admitted to the failure of state control. The four had apparently appeared before the courts “a total of 153 times”, leading the RUC to decry the “inadequacy of the juvenile sentencing regime”, according to the Telegraph’s reporter, Sean O’Neill.
An Phoblacht summed up the inability of the Six County statelet to impose its law and its order on the nationalist community in the following way: “What we have in many areas is local people policing themselves. This will continue to happen as long as people cannot trust the RUC and don’t enjoy the benefit of an impartial police service.” In fact it is not so much a case of self-policing as policing by the IRA. Nevertheless, despite the lack of democratic control, the Provisionals are generally regarded as the legitimate authority. Quite rightly the RUC is viewed as the brutal agency of sectarian oppression and British occupation.
This total disdain for the state and a preference for revolutionary forces is entirely healthy. We do not join in the crocodile tears for the anti-social elements who are on the receiving end of IRA beatings or orders to quit. It is regrettable that more humane options are not available, but the IRA does not hold state power and cannot, for example, compel attendance at rehabilitation centres. We are also aware that IRA terror is sometimes meted out to political opponents within the democratic movement condemned as ‘disruptive’. This is unjust
We have no illusions that SF/IRA are for working class self-emancipation. We support them critically to the extent that they remain revolutionary anti-imperialists (whether they use violent or peaceful means). To the extent that they become integrated within the bourgeois political system and subordinate themselves to imperialism or the Irish government, we oppose them.
For the moment the government has all but accepted the right of the IRA to police ‘its’ areas. Mowlam’s announcement that its ceasefire had “not broken down”, even after the killing of Charles Bennett, could only be interpreted in this way. The British know that they cannot win over the nationalist/republican communities to trust and support the existing forces of the Six County statelet, no matter how many tinkering reforms they make. A better plan would be one that provides for the gradual incorporation of SF/IRA into new state structures.
But, faced with the loss of privilege and monopoly over the levers of power, loyalism will oppose this every inch of the way. That is why defence of the RUC assumes such significance. Perhaps we will see not just “former members” rallying to the cause, but the mobilisation of existing officers of this wing of the state. Stayaways, demonstrations of uniformed police, even mass resignations or strikes are all on the cards.
And the British Conservatives, themselves staring into the political wilderness, are actively making common cause with the loyalists, breaking with the 30-year tradition of bipartisanship over Ireland. Such divisions in the ruling class are our opportunity.