Accountability, Policing, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland: Local Practice, Global Standards?

John Topping

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review


    Almost without exception, both the development and operationalization of police accountability in Northern Ireland have gone hand-in-hand with the much lauded and complex reform process set in motion by the far-reaching recommendations of the Independent Commission for Policing in Northern Ireland (ICP, 1999). Beneath the international attention focused upon the polity’s policing affairs over nearly four decades, it may be observed that ‘knowing’ and ‘overseeing’ what the police ‘do’ have become integral to the country’s contemporary policing (and political) landscape.As part of the implicit ICP policy of ‘wrestling’ policing from the state and giving it ‘back to the people’ (Topping, 2008b), creating one of the world’s most accountable police services has become the bedrock of community trust and legitimacy not just in the police, but so too the state – not withstanding the importance of policing to the wider political settlement and stability in the country (O’Rawe, 2003). Thus, on both vertical (structural) and horizontal (socio-political) plains, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has become governed by a host of statutory, governmental and other bodies – generally conceived as the global ‘gold standard’ of police oversight, not limited to operational policing, human rights, public order policing and organisational governance (Ellison, 2007; Office of the Oversight Commissioner, 2007; Topping, 2008a).Yet in spite of the embedded nature of accountability mechanisms in terms of their legal and policy status, it may be argued that function has not necessarily followed form with regard to the outworking of police accountability – and especially so when set within the transitional and shifting context of the policing landscape of Northern Ireland. As will be observed below, a number of ‘mediating realities’ serve to challenge both the efficacy of the various mechanisms in place to hold the police to account. Indeed, the evidence would suggest the policing and security environment is something other than that which is conducive to the delivery of ‘normal’ policing, with: a continuing terrorist threat; social and religious segregation; ritual public disorder; and ‘alternative’ policing provision variously coalescing to challenge the outward projection of policing in the country as ‘mission successful’ – and accounts thereof (Topping and Byrne, 2012c). With Northern Ireland further described as a ‘criminological netherworld’, police accountability thus remains as a subjective and flexible assessment of policing – rather than an objective metric of police performance and oversight (Ellison & Mulcahy, 2001). In this regard, accountability for policing by PSNI in terms of what it ‘does’, what it delivers and what it is responsible for on the ground remains far from clear-cut (Topping & Byrne, 2012a). Against this backdrop, this chapter examines the key junctures of police accountability within a Northern Ireland context. Indeed, the intention is not to detail nor assess the efficacy of police oversight and monitoring as ‘encoded’ through the police governance structures per se. Rather, it sets out to explore the limits of police accountability as a function of the environment in which it is conceived. Ultimately, the chapter argues that accountability for both institutional and operational ‘police action’ in the country has become a ‘site’ of contest in and of itself – of which the official ‘accounts’ of policing are but one version of reality.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationAccountability of Policing
    Place of PublicationOxon
    ISBN (Print)978041571533
    Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - Jan 2016


    • police
    • police accountability
    • police service of northern ireland
    • policing
    • oversight


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