Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe

Testimony :: Mr. Brendan McAllister
Director - Mediation Northern Ireland


I would like to thank the Commission for the invitation to testify here today on the matter of Human Rights and Police Reform in Northern Ireland.

On this, the eve of St. Patrick’s Day, I wish to express my gratitude to you for your continuing commitment to the process of peace in Ireland and, in particular, your awareness of the centrality of policing to the health of our society.

I have submitted to you a written statement which gives you an account of the major activities of my organisation in the field of policing since 1993 and I would request that, that submission be included in the record of today’s proceedings as well as the following comments about our work.

In 1993, Mediation Northern Ireland were asked by the R.U.C. to design and introduce a programme aimed at enhancing the sensitivity of police recruits towards the task of policing a divided society.

By 1996 we had established a Community Awareness Programme in Foundation Training but withdrew because we found ourselves at odds with the R.U.C. over our work as mediators in the emerging parades conflict.

However, we continued to be exercised by the idea of entering a dialogue with senior ranks of the R.U.C. in anticipation of police reform and so, in 1997, we began the Policing Our Divided Society project, involving intensive dialogue with senior police officers. Our discussions centred on the philosophy of Community Oriented Policing which the R.U.C. were beginning to embrace but which needed critical scrutiny when set against the realities of our divided society.

Over the next three years our private dialogues with the R.U.C. was supported by the State Department’s Office of Citizen Exchanges, who financed three field trips with a group of senior officers to engage with American specialists who, in turn, helped us with the follow-up workshops in Belfast.

With the publication of the Patten report in 1999, the process of police reform took a massive leap forward. We advised members of the Patten commission during the course of their deliberations, especially on the matter of police culture and in 2001 we established a new programme which concentrated on internal change within the new Police Service of Northern Ireland and, outside of the police, the promotion of the concept of policing as a civic endeavour shared between police officer and citizen.

We have been developing a programme on Policing and Reconciliation for student officers and also facilitate a forum to promote reflection and critical dialogue among police officers about how their practice serves or hinders reconciliation in the community.

Over the past three years we have also benefited on two occasions form State Department funding to bring civic leaders, including politicians and most of the Policing Board, to the United States to spend time in the company of U.S. police executives, theorists and community activists. Each U.S. trip has been followed up by a visit by American colleagues to Belfast.

We are now developing a new three year project, due to begin this Autumn, aimed at sustaining an agenda on Policing and Reconciliation within the PSNI.

We are also assisting the Policing Board with a project for members of the District Policing Partnerships.

In addition, since the establishment of the Office of the Police Ombudsman we have been providing support to staff development across that agency.

In our activities on the ground we have interfaced with police commanders and personnel on contentious matters such as interface violence and the policing of parades.

In the context of the above work, let me make the following observations.

The nature of policing will always reflect the character of the society it serves.

Before the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969, Northern Ireland was a segregated society characterised by unionist hegemony and nationalist ambivalence and the R.U.C. had a unionist or Protestant cultural dominance. The nationalist or Catholic community had no sense of ownership of it and as an arm of a state which was prone to cyclical outbreaks of republican violence, the R.U.C. maintained a quasi-military tradition.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 ushered in a new era, with new civic norms of pluralism accommodating the nationalist and unionist traditions; partnership between them and the ideal of a non partisan character to public institutions.

The Patten Commission in 1999 reflected the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, introducing new civic norms within policing.

Since then change has begun on a number of levels which are worth naming here:

Structural Change has involved the reconstitution and restructuring of the Police Service, the establishment of the Policing Board and the District Policing Partnerships. It is on the structural issues and the question of their sufficiency that most political dispute now rages.

However, from the point of view of Mediation Northern Ireland, change on a number of other levels is of more pressing concern.

An example is what I would call ‘Conceptual Change’.

Let me point out that in many respects the PSNI’s evolving professionalism is impressive and compares well with any police service I have encountered in the United States, however in my view, the PSNI have mentally signed up to the philosophy of Community Policing but have a long way yet to go to truly embrace it or, indeed, understand it.

In this regard, perhaps the biggest impediment is the prevalence of a police mindset bent on a form of professionalism which is paternalistic towards the community.

An example of how this mentality might be sustained will be found in new proposals for an alternative to the use of plastic baton rounds which are due out this year. The question on this matter will be the degree of importance attaching to new technology compared to the greater emphasis which should be given to the development of better relationships with the community which are the best alternative to plastic baton rounds and are the true litmus test of the police – community relationship.

Another level of change is cultural. Here again, much work remains to be done. Policing in Northern Ireland has been defined for so long by security and counter-terrorism that the security mindset often seems to blinker police officers and inhibit their capacity to read the community.

And within the Police, there is still a need to develop the kind of organisational diversity which enables the unionist community to renew their confidence in the Police Service while also broadening its essential character to make it expressive of the nationalist tradition as well. Thus far, the PSNI have acted conservatively by promoting a so-called organisational neutrality. Though in fairness I would add that they are not alone in this public service culture in Northern Ireland.

Another level of change which merits discussion here is communal.
Since the creation of the PSNI, almost all of the attention has focused on reform of the Police Service. However, while the entitlements of citizens are crucial to public confidence in the Police, the philosophy of Policing with the Community also confers responsibilities on the citizen.

When the Patten Commission cut the Police Service in half, it envisaged an era when citizens and communities would enter new partnerships with police officers in the detection of crime, the resolution of problems and the maintenance of order.

However, it seems to me that across our society, citizens are used to a kind of delegation of responsibility to professionals in the discharge of public service. Yet, this kind of delegation will not make for effective policing in this day and age. As a policing philosophy, Community Policing requires a new kind of activism from the ordinary citizen because the knowledge and traditions of local communities must be brought to bear on the policing task if localised solutions are to be found in partnerships with police.

Moreover, this kind of civic vision presents a number of genuine challenges to those citizens and communities in our society, who have an enduring mistrust of police.

I should finally like to comment on the effect of the political impasse on the character of policing in Northern Ireland.

In framing its reforms, the Patten Commission envisaged only one scenario for the immediate future of Northern Ireland: one in which the Good Friday Agreement would be implemented and a new political consensus would take hold in our society.

The collapse of the Executive and Assembly and the changed political landscape as a consequence of the recent Assembly elections suggest to me that there is no prospect of a renewed political settlement for a number of years.

History has shown that terrorism thrives in a political vacuum and sporadic attacks on members of the District Policing Partnerships suggest that the new civic infrastructure of policing is viewed as a pressure point by those who remain wedded to the use of violence to achieve their ends.

On a positive note, there is a long term likelihood that further sustained political engagement will produce a more definitive settlement than that reached in 1998.

However, the deepening political limbo into which Northern Ireland is now settling, creates the danger of disillusionment and a loss of direction across our society. Already there are signs that discipline within sections of loyalism is fraying at the edges and there are plenty of situations which will test the confidence of citizens in a peace that has not yet fulfilled its promise.

In this context, unforeseen by Patten and his colleagues, the civic integrity of new institutions will be tested. The Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Policing Board and members of the District Policing Partnership and the Office of the Police Ombudsman are examples of new institutions which will feel the strain.