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Sunday 13 November 2005

The twists and turns on the road to one rule of law

  • Set up in 1922 after partition, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was charged not just with law enforcement, but with protecting Northern Ireland from armed subversion.

  • Originally planned to be one-third Catholic, nationalist hostility and intimidation from republicans saw Catholic RUC membership drop from 21 per cent in 1923 to 17 per cent in 1927 and 10 per cent in 1970.

  • High-ranking Catholics in the RUC included Chief Constable Jamie Flanagan, Deputy Chief Constable Michael McAtamney, Assistant Chief Constable Cathal Ramsey and Chief Superintendent Frank Lagan, who on Bloody Sunday in Derry failed to persuade the army to let the banned parade proceed without challenge.

  • Mutual antipathy between the RUC and the IRA was exacerbated by attacks on policemen: in 1957, for instance, Sean South and Fergal O'Hanlon crossed the border to attack Brookborough police station, were killed in a shoot-out and became objects of republican veneration.

  • The quasi-militarism of the RUC was widely reviled when in 1968-9 they reacted in a heavy-handed way to disorder arising from civil rights marches. The force was reformed in 1970 and was about to be disarmed when the rise of the IRA put it under permanent siege.

  • Between 1969 and 1998, though they killed only 50, 303 police were killed - 273 by the IRA. In 1983, Interpol figures demonstrated that Northern Ireland was the most dangerous place in the world to be a policeman.

  • In that same period, at least 10,000 policemen and women were badly injured, many were intimidated out of their homes by republican and loyalist paramilitaries, most witnessed terrible carnage, alcoholism was endemic and more than 50 officers committed suicide. Backed by the Police Federation, 5,000 have just begun a class action against the Chief Constable over what they allege was the force's failure to help them avoid Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

  • The last two policemen to be murdered by the IRA were shot in June 1997, a month before the second ceasefire. The brilliant republican 'Disband the RUC' propaganda campaign was intensified, causing much anguish to police who saw their corporate name blackened internationally.

  • A commitment was made in the Belfast (Good Friday)Agreement of 1998 (which, incidentally, Sinn Fein has never signed) to set up an independent commission to make recommendations for "a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole". There was no undertaking to accept its conclusions.

  • The Patten commission designed the most accountable and human rights-oriented police force in the world. Renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), and with new, neutral symbols, mass redundancies and 50/50 recruiting of Catholics and Protestants, it became answerable inter alia to District Policing Partnership Boards, a Policing Board, a Police Ombudsman (Nuala O'Loan) and an Oversight Commissioner (Al Hutchinson), who reported last month that 114 of the 175 Patten recommendations had been implemented but further progress was being hindered by public disorder and the failure of certain groups to give their backing.

  • Both governments were deeply disappointed that despite the radical reforms, Sinn Fein refused to follow in the SDLP's footsteps and endorse the PSNI, but they continued to hope. At a private conference in 1993, a Sinn Fein spokesman explained that they wanted not just the full Patten but Patten Plus.

  • Although Sinn Fein condemns dissident attacks on nationalist members of policing boards, it maintains its hostility and now insists that its approval depends on the devolution of policing and justice to a reconstituted Northern Ireland Executive. Meanwhile, it has been building up what its Human Rights spokeswoman, Caitriona Ruane, calls 'a viable alternativeto the PSNI': Community Restorative Justice (CRJ).

  • The fundamental principle of Community Restorative Justice in other countries is to enable communities to support the police and criminal justice systems by working with anti-social individuals. Funded by the American millionaire, Chuck Feeney - who wants to discourage violent paramilitary justice - the five loyalist schemes have police on their management committees. Although the 14 schemes in republican areas refuse to have any dealings with the police, Sinn Fein have been pressing the British government to fund them when Feeney's money runs out and to allow people with criminal convictions to participate.

  • As the SDLP's Alex Attwood says, this would result in "two policing worlds, that of the PSNI, due process and the rule of law, and that of others, their processes and their law".

  • As of this weekend, it looks as if Downing Street is set to cave in.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards