Avoiding trouble
: threat and accountability in public order policing in Northern Ireland

  • Ciara Aucoin Delloue

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This dissertation examines the factors that influence the policing of large, politically motivated crowd events. It analyses police officers’ conceptions of threat and accountability dynamics and the strategic decisions they make to avoid or minimise ‘trouble’ or the consequences of their actions (Waddington, 1994). It presents a case study of the policing of large, contested Protestant parades by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in the period 2008–2020. Situated within the wider fields of sociology and criminology – specifically, the study of the policing of politically motivated crowd events – this study explains the factors that influence PSNI officers’ understandings of their role and conceptions of trouble in establishing situational control and avoid wider scrutiny and ‘fallout’ in the process.

The dissertation is based on 50 semi-structured interviews with active and retired police officers, representatives of the statutory bodies with direct bearing on public order policing, and a sample of parade and protest organisers, mediators, and community representatives. It departs from existing approaches to the study of public order policing in that it looks beyond the situational interactions between police officers and crowd participants and into the historical and political factors that are all too often reduced to ‘context’.

It does this by using a novel multi-level framework for the study of trouble that permits a critical analysis of the roles that actors at the political-legal (macro), police organisational (meso) and situational-interactional (micro) levels play in the strategic direction of public order policing. The findings highlight the role played by a host of non-police actors in the policing of contentious parades, specifically how and why a set of institutions and community actors serve to both constitute and constrain the state police service’s grip on situational control, its wider reputation, and its legitimacy.

This thesis explains Northern Ireland as a case where the legal and institutional architecture within which the PSNI is embedded sees frontline and commanding officers face two layers of accountability: a formal, institutional oversight mechanism that emanates from the top-down and a diverse and informal set of expectations and demands from community members that flow from the street in a bottom-up direction. As such, a central argument this thesis advances it that an overlooked factor shaping police perceptions in public order policing research is the informal, diffuse, and often competing demands and expectations from crowd organisers and community representatives on the street and how those demands shape police decision-making.
Date of AwardOct 2023
Original languageEnglish
SponsorsUniversity Alliance -DTA
SupervisorJonny Byrne (Supervisor) & Shane MacGiollabhui (Supervisor)


  • Policing
  • Public order policing
  • Contentious parades
  • Northern Ireland

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