CAIN Web Service

Centre for the Study of Conflict
School of History, Philosophy and Politics,
Faculty of Humanities, University of Ulster

Centre Publications

[Centre for the Study of Conflict - Home Page]
[Background] [Staff] [Projects] [CENTRE PUBLICATIONS] [Other Information] [Contact Details]
[Chronological Listing] [Alphabetical Listing] [Subject Listing]

Text: Andrew Hamilton, Linda Moore and Tim Trimble ... Page Design: John Hughes

Policing a Divided Society frontispiece

Policing a Divided Society: Issues and Perceptions in Northern Ireland

by Andrew Hamilton, Linda Moore and Tim Trimble
Published by the University of Ulster, Coleraine 1995
ISBN 1 85923 027 X
Paperback 160pp £8.00

Out of Print

This material is copyright of the Centre for the Study of Conflict and the author(s) and is included on the CAIN web site with the permission of the publisher. Reproduction or redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

Policing a Divided Society:
Issues and Perceptions in Northern Ireland

by Andrew Hamilton, Linda Moore and Tim Trimble

Centre for the Study of Conflict
University of Ulster




Objectives and Methodology


The Historical Context


The Administrative Structure


The Legal Framework and Complaints Procedures


Implications for Community Policing and Public Order Policing


Catholic Derry


Protestant Londonderry




East Belfast


Conclusions and Recommendations



The Centre for the Study of Conflict is a research centre based in the University of Ulster. Its main work is the promotion and encouragement of research on the community conflict in Northern Ireland and to this end it concentrates on practical issues to do with institutional and community structures and change. It publishes papers and books arising out of this work including: a series of research papers particularly designed to make available research data and reports; a series of Majority-Minority reports; and a series of occasional papers by distinguished academics in the field of conflict.

This paper is a new publication by Andrew Hamilton, Linda Moore and Tim Trimble which is based on detailed and comprehensive field work over two years in three locations in Northern Ireland. It examines the history of policing, how it is legally and administratively structured, and identifies the most salient issues. It then collects and analyses the perceptions of communities, their political and community representatives, and police-related individuals and organisations with respect to the complete range of contested issues. It ends by making a number of recommendations arising out of the data and its analysis.

This report is one of a set of new publications which the Centre will produce over the next few months and a detailed list is provided at the end of this report.

Seamus Dunn
July 1995.

Return to publication contents

Objectives and Methodology


All societies are based on a system of rules and laws, and have created agencies to administer and enforce those laws. in most liberal-democratic societies the overwhelming majority of people accept the legitimacy of the law and of the law enforcement agencies. The problems of policing become more complex when such a consensus does not exist, as is the case in Northern Ireland, where there are deep political cleavages, including alternative aspirations as to the constitutional future of the territory. Added to the political divisions is, on the one hand, the existence of paramilitary violence and, on the other, a number of emergency legislative measures giving wide powers to the various branches of the security forces. The security forces also face the dual problem of acting effectively and maintaining confidence across the whole community.

In such a situation, there is immense pressure and responsibility on the security forces generally and on individual members of those forces. On the other hand, there is the concern that some categories of people may receive unfair or excessive treatment from the security forces. Since the late 1960s there have been a number of reforms of the organisation and operations of the security forces in response to both these concerns.

The Political and Security Contexts of the Studies

The fieldwork for this study was carried Out between September 1992 and April 1994. This was a period of great political instability in Northern Ireland with a need for continuing security activities. The province was being subjected to an intensified bombing campaign by the IRA, focusing largely on Protestant towns, and there was an escalation of killings by both republican and loyalist paramilitaries, particularly in parts of Belfast. In October 1993 an IRA bomb killed ten people in a fish shop on the Shankill Road in Protestant west Belfast. A week later, loyalist paramilitaries shot dead seven people in a mainly Catholic pub close to the Waterside area of Derry/Londonderry.

On the political front uncertainty reigned. Talks between the constitutional political parties in the province had broken down and the response of the republican and loyalist paramilitaries, and their associated political parties, to the Downing Street Declaration was not yet known when the fieldwork ended. The IRA and loyalist ceasefires were not, in fact, called until 31 August and 13 October 1994 respectively.

These ceasefires have further stimulated the debate concerning future policing arrangements in Northern Ireland (see section 10 for further discussion), and have already led to the withdrawal of the army from the streets of urban areas, at least during daytime hours, and to a more "relaxed" form of policing by the RUC. They have also enabled the RUC to begin to address some of the issues raised in the studies; for example, the demands for more community policing and the criticisms frequently made about slow response times to calls concerning "ordinary" crime in some of the areas being studied. However, even these measures are in their early stages and most of the key issues identified by the studies remain unresolved.

In February 1995 the British government published two "Framework Documents", the first of which contained its own proposals for new institutional arrangements in Northern Ireland, while the second contained the joint proposals of the British and Irish Governments concerning new political arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and between the two Governments.

In the first of these documents, the British Government stated its willingness to consider "proposals designed to enhance the extent to which the community at large in Northern Ireland can identify with and give full support to the police service". It added that the Government's direct responsibility for policing and security matters will continue so long as the security threat "is such that the active support of the armed services is necessary and emergency legislation is required"; but that "as that threat diminishes, so the likelihood increases that responsibility for policing matters, principally funding and the setting and monitoring of police objectives, could be transferred to [the appropriate committee of any new Northern Ireland Assembly]" (NIO, 1995: 7-8).

Aims and Objectives

The aim of this study is to investigate and seek to understand the problems of policing a divided society. The objectives are:

i. to document the historical, legal and administrative contexts of policing in Northern Ireland;

ii. to identify security forces' policies and procedures that may influence relations with the public;

iii. to gather community views on local policing;

iv. to make recommendations based on the findings of the research.

A number of benefits are likely to flow from such a study. It should give greater insight into the difficulties of policing a divided society and some of the lessons from the Northern Ireland experience will be shared more widely. It should point to areas where the training and operations of the security forces might be improved, with a view to improving the relationship between the security forces and the public.

Methodology: The Historical, Legal and Administrative Context

This involved a review, using mainly documentary sources, of the historical context of policing in Northern Ireland, the legal powers held by the various branches of the security forces and the administrative context within which they exercise those powers.

Security Forces' Policies and Procedures

Three aspects of official policy and operational practice were considered relevant. The first involves formal procedures for determining policy and transmitting it to junior ranks. The second concerns procedures which govern relations with the public. The third is the application of policy in practical situations.

We had originally hoped to have gained access, through the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) management, to a wide range of police officers of all ranks, particularly those operating within the communities being studied. However, the RUC declined to provide such access and instead granted two interviews with senior officers, to deal with specific issues such as training, recruitment and complaints procedures. The army adopted a similar position and we had one interview with civilian representatives of the army. Despite being denied the broad access which we originally requested, it was believed that insight into these issues could be gained in a number of ways:

i. interviews with senior staff to discuss specific issues.

ii. the use of existing research material;

iii. the use of other published material, official and semi-official;

iv. interviews with representatives of the Police Federation (the RUC "trade union").

Community Perceptions

This involved a number of approaches to the collection of data:

(a) An assessment of the perceptions of the security forces held by various institutions or organisations operating within communities (for example, political parties, churches, community organisations). This should also indicate their views on complaints against the security forces and the role of these institutions/organisations in mediating disputes between the public and the security forces. This involved unstructured but focused interviews with individuals from such institutions and organisations, representing both the Catholic and Protestant communities.

The main objective of these interviews was to identify issues which could be built into our later interviews at local level. After deliberation, Sinn Féin formally declined to participate in the study at a community level, largely on the grounds that the study would be focusing on mechanisms to reform the RUC and make it more acceptable, whereas they believed the force to be unreformable and, as such, incapable of winning the support of the nationalist community. Although we stressed that we would be willing to report their views, they continued to decline but agreed to grant an interview with two party representatives in the party office in Belfast. By the time of Sinn Féin's decision not to cooperate locally, we had already received the help of a Derry councillor whose views have been recorded in the Derry community study.

(b) Community studies which investigated attitudes towards the security forces, local expectations, and the extent of and reasons for any dissatisfaction in particular areas. This involved semi-structured depth interviews with people in the local community. These included key figures such as local politicians, community activists, church leaders, teachers, youth workers, probation officers, and representatives from a wide range of other voluntary and statutory agencies operating within the areas. These interviews were carried out on an individual basis. The researchers also interviewed many local people, particularly young people, both individually and in groups, and people who have come into contact with the police (e.g. people who have been interviewed by the police, people who have been approached with regard to "informing", victims of crime etc.). The interviews were carried out within the communities themselves and, with the exception noted above, we received widespread cooperation within the communities being studied. As far as possible interviews were tape-recorded. However, while most politicians readily agreed to be taped, those in the voluntary and statutory sector mostly insisted that any conversations must be "off-the-record" and used for background only. Any interviews with local residents have, of course, been carried out on the basis of anonymity. For the same reason, although we have identified the cities/towns covered by the studies we have not named the specific localities which were the main focal points of those studies.

(c) Observation studies of people who are believed to receive special attention from the security forces: existing research suggests that the groups involved include urban, working-class, young males (both nationalist and loyalist) and Sinn Féin activists. The researchers visited the areas regularly, over a period of several months in each case, carrying out these observations and interviews.

(d) Data obtained from previous studies and surveys, where appropriate.


In deciding on the areas to be studied, we were looking for areas which included both Catholic and Protestant communities and which were subject to at least fairly extensive policing. At the same time it was necessary to avoid areas where current levels of violence were particularly high, mainly out of consideration for the safety of researchers, but also because conflict is a dynamic concept and particularly high levels of tension could distort the data.

While we accept that studies carried out in different types of area might well have resulted in significantly different findings, we would argue that an understanding of community perceptions and attitudes in the types of area chosen is crucial in trying to arrive at widely acceptable policing structures and policies in Northern Ireland.

The three areas chosen were Derry/Londonderry, Dungannon and East Belfast.

1. Derry/Londonderry, is situated in the north-west of the region, 75 miles from Belfast but only some 2 miles from the border with the Republic of Ireland. It is the second largest city in Northern Ireland with a population of 74,055, 18 per cent of whom are Protestant. Mass population movements in the 1970s and a continuation of that process since then, albeit at a slower rate, have resulted in a sharply segregated society. On the west bank of the River Foyle (the Cityside) the proportion of Protestants has fallen from 20 per cent in 1971 to 5 per cent in 199 1. On the east bank (the Waterside) the population mix has been much more stable, with the proportion of Protestants increasing from 57 per cent in 1971 to 59 per cent in 1991 (Boyle and Hadden, 1994: 6). But even here, the two communities are almost totally segregated, particularly in working-class areas.

In 1984 the Government agreed that the City council, now controlled by nationalist parties, would be known as Derry although the official name of the city would be continue to be Londonderry. This remains a sensitive issue within the city and, out of respect for these sensitivities, we have used Derry when describing the study in the Catholic area and Londonderry when describing the Protestant area.

The city was one of the main centres of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and later one of the areas most intensely affected by the rioting and paramilitary activity in the 1970s, although even then the level of inter-sectarian killing was much lower than, for example, in parts of Belfast. Since the 1980s the level of violence has dropped off sharply, but the city has not been immune from bombings and killings and remains one of the most highly policed areas in the province.

The study focused on two areas:

i. A mainly working-class estate on the Cityside, about 3 miles from the city centre. It has a population of some 2,500 people, almost all Catholics. The estate itself is a public sector estate, although about 15% of the dwellings have now been sold to tenants, and there is other private sector housing fringing on the estate.

ii. A working-class estate on the Waterside, about 11 miles from the city centre. It has a population of some 1,200 people, almost all Protestants. Although the estate was built by the public sector, more than 30 per cent of the dwellings are now privately owned. It is close to a Catholic area and is, therefore, a potential flashpoint. It also fringes on a middle-class area which is religiously mixed though mainly Protestant.

Unemployment, and particularly male unemployment has long been a major problem in Derry/Londonderry. Indeed, in December 1994 the male unemployment rate of 23.2 per cent was nearly 50 per cent higher than for Northern Ireland as a whole (Department of Economic Development Press Notice). Unemployment was noted as a particular problem in both of the areas being studied.

2. Dungannon, in County Tyrone is a market town and local administrative centre in the south of the region, just over 30 miles from Belfast and less than 10 miles from the border with the Republic of Ireland. The District Council area which it services has a population of 45,428, of which 46% are Protestants and 44% Catholics with 12% not stated (1991 Census; Boyle and Hadden, 1994: 29) The town itself, which has a population of just over 8,000 and is also almost evenly comprised of Catholics and Protestant, has suffered greatly from IRA bombing campaigns, and there have been many attacks on RUC stations in the area, as well as a number of killings at the hands of not only members of paramilitary organisations, both loyalist and republican, but also members of the security forces.

Dungannon town, which was the main focus of this study, is very segregated in terms of housing and the situation has worsened over the period of the troubles. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has been attempting to introduce more mixed estates but this is a very gradual process.

Concern about the levels of segregation and associated sectarianism has led to attempts to encourage cross-community communication. In addition, since 1988, Dungannon District Council has had a power-sharing arrangement in which the council chairs rotated between nationalist and unionist parties on a six monthly basis. However, neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin are involved in the arrangement.

In December 1994, unemployment in the Dungannon area stood at 13.8 per cent with male unemployment at 17.6 per cent; both figures were slightly above the Northern Ireland average (Department of Economic Development Press Notice).

3. East Belfast is the main heartland of working-class Protestantism in the city of Belfast. It has a total population of 80,187 of whom only 11% are Catholics, and, in working-class areas such as those being studied, the two communities are almost totally segregated.

The focus of the study was on two adjacent communities in the inner-city area, one community (of approximately 5,000) almost exclusively Catholic, and one (of approximately 10,000) almost exclusively Protestant. Both areas have experienced considerable urban renewal in recent years, but the demographic makeup of both communities has remained largely constant. The area as a whole is policed by personnel from an RUC station which is situated in the middle of the Catholic community.

Although east Belfast experienced high levels of violence in the 1970s, in more recent years it has not seen the same levels of sectarian violence as in north and west Belfast, although there have still been a number of killings. The interface between the two communities being studied has been relatively free of conflict in recent years; indeed, the area seemed, at the time of the study, to have largely escaped the sectarian conflict which was occurring in other similar areas of Belfast. The policing style which was adopted in this area perhaps reflected this relative calm, although as we shall see, police would still invariably be accompanied by army personnel in the Catholic area.

In recent years, male unemployment has become a particularly serious problem in east Belfast, and it was noted as such in the two areas being studied.

The studies were sequential, starting in Derry/Londonderry, moving on to Dungannon and finishing in Belfast, although the researchers made return visits to the areas studied previously.

Presentation of Studies

Unlike the other two studies, i.e. Dungannon and east Belfast, the two communities in Derry/Londonderry were policed from different police stations, and in fact the study produced such a depth and diversity of material that it quickly took on the shape of two separate studies and has been reported on as such. This richness of material resulted in the Derry/Londonderry studies being extended beyond the time originally allocated, and this, together with changes in staffing, led to a shorter time being available for the Belfast study than had been intended. However, it was considered worthwhile to proceed in order to provide a further example of the similarities and differences in attitudes which exist in different parts of Northern Ireland.

In presenting the community studies, we have normally begun by examining the general perspectives of the communities and their representatives, and then moved on to examine their views on particular issues. However, the varying compositions and problems of the communities themselves are reflected in the presentation. For example, in the case of the study of the Protestant Londonderry community there were such wide divergences in the views of the political representatives and the residents that we have examined them separately.

Return to publication contents


Issues concerning policing policies, structures and practices - and the administration of justice in general - have been central to the polarisation of Northern Irish society since the establishment of the state, and they continue to divide the two communities. On the one hand, most unionists see the various institutional arrangements and legislative frameworks for the maintenance of law and order as essential to the preservation of the constitutional status quo, faced with the threat from militant republicanism. On the other hand, most nationalists view the same institutions and legislation as yet another example - and one of the most blatant and important examples - of the sectarian nature of the state. Indeed, as Hillyard (1983: 35) points out, from the outset the law and order strategy adopted by successive Unionist governments continually alienated the minority community from both the law and the state. This has proved to be a difficult legacy for successive British governments, striving to deal with the security problems facing the state at the same time as trying to establish some degree of confidence in the law in order institutions among the Catholic population.

It has also proved a particularly difficult legacy for the RUC, which during the last twenty-five years has made strenuous efforts to improve its professionalism - in which it is widely agreed to have been largely successful. However its attempts to gain acceptance from both communities in Northern Ireland as anon-political, non-partisan force, through measures such as developing community relations programmes and community awareness training, have, as we shall discuss, been undermined by a number of other aspects of policy and practices, as well as by the actions of individual officers.

Towards the end of 1921, in accordance with the provisions of the Government of Ireland Act, responsibility for the maintenance of law and order was transferred to the Northern Ireland government, with whom it was to remain until March 1972 when the Westminster government suspended the Northern Ireland government and parliament and, among other functions, took over direct responsibility for law and order. In June 1922 the RUC officially came into being with an initial establishment of 3,000 members. It was envisaged that the RUC would draw most of its members from the old Royal Irish Constabulary and that a third of the force would be Catholic (roughly proportionate to the religious composition of the population as a whole), a figure which has never come close to being met though it must be stressed that the RUC has never been an exclusively Protestant force.

From the outset the RUC was trained to perform not only the normal functions of a civilian police force, but also a paramilitary role to counter the threat posed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). In that role it was to be supported by the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), a mainly part-time auxiliary force known locally as the B Specials, which could be called upon in an emergency. While membership of the USC was not in theory confined to Protestants, the selection and screening practices - allied to the risks of Catholic members becoming especial targets of the IRA - meant that in practice it quickly became a wholly Protestant force (Darby, 1976: 61).

The USC played a central role in helping establish the authority of the new government in Northern Ireland, and from the outset it was surrounded in controversy and viewed with suspicion, resentment and even hatred by most Catholics. The Scarman Tribunal which investigated the riots and shootings in the summer of 1969 concluded that the USC was "totally distrusted by the Catholics" who saw it as "the strong arm of the Protestant ascendancy" (quoted in Flackes and Elliott, 1989: 384).

It has been argued that the sectarian conduct of members of the USC contributed to the anti-police sentiment amongst the Catholic population, since not only were the USC and the RUC linked together in the public mind, but also half the initial recruits for the RUC came from the USC (Hillyard 1983, 33). Whatever the precise reasons, by 1969 the lack of confidence in the RUC among the Catholic population was clear to the Scarman Tribunal which, while rejecting the charge that the RUC was a partisan force which had co-operated with Protestant mobs to attack Catholics, concluded that the events of August 1969 had resulted in a complete loss of confidence by the Catholic community in the police force as it was then constituted (Flackes and Elliott, 1989: 250 & 385-6). In particular, the poor quality of the leadership in the force was a common criticism in all investigations into police conduct during the Civil Rights period (Darby, 1976 61-2).

The distrust felt by most Catholics was exacerbated by what was seen as politically repressive legislation dating back to the establishment of the Northern Ireland government. In 1922 the Stormont parliament passed the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act which gave the Northern Ireland Minister of Home Affairs sweeping emergency powers, including the power of internment, justified by the high level of political violence that accompanied partition. The Act (generally referred to as the "Special Powers Act") conferred wide powers of arrest, questioning, search and detention on the police. Although originally intended as a temporary measure which was required to be renewed annually, in 1933 the Act was made permanent, and since it was used almost exclusively against Catholics it added to the widespread sense of resentment and lack of confidence among the Catholic community and "ensured that the RUC was seen as an instrument of the Unionist government" (Guelke 1992: 96).

This lack of confidence among Northern Irish Catholics in the impartial enforcement of law and order was further exacerbated by a lack of confidence in the courts, primarily due to the strong imbalance between Protestants and Catholics in the composition of both the judiciary and juries (see, Darby, 1976: 63-5 and Hillyard, 1973: 35).

In August 1969, the Northern Ireland government, faced with the inability of the RUC to contain the violent disturbances in Belfast and in Derry, was forced to request the deployment of British troops to stabilise the situation. Prior to this there had always been a British army presence in Northern Ireland, but at a fairly low level and solely to deal with any external threat to the Northern Ireland state. The new situation provided the British government with the opportunity to pressurise the Northern Ireland parliament into a series of reforms intended to reduce discrimination and increase Catholic confidence in the institutions of the state. It was inevitable, given the new involvement of the army and the widespread criticism of previous policing practices, that the arrangements for the maintenance of law and order should be a primary area for attention.

Following the recommendations of the Hunt Committee (1969), the USC was disbanded and replaced in April 1970 by the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), a locally raised force within the British army structure. The RUC was to be remodelled along the same lines as police forces in Great Britain, with the objective of establishing a wholly civilian force, with no military role; it was intended that the British army would take over the primary responsibility for security. Furthermore, to free the RUC from direct political control, the Police Act 1970 established a new Police Authority for Northern Ireland (PANI), which was to be representative of the main sections of the community and was given the responsibility to maintain an adequate and efficient police force. The size of the force, which had previously been limited to 3,500, was increased to 4,940 in 1970 and a series of subsequent increases led to a full-time force of 8,478 by 1992, when there was also a full-time Reserve of 3,160 and a part-time Reserve of 1,432 (Flackes and Elliott 1989, p. 386; Royal Ulster Constabulary, 1992). However, this increase in size has not been matched by increased Catholic participation in the force. Indeed, whereas in 1961 Catholics comprised 12 per cent of the force (Darby, 1976: 59), even this low figure has fallen back sharply and in 1992 stood at 7.7 per cent; in the same year only some 10 per cent of new applicants were Catholics. Just under 6 per cent of the full-time reserve was comprised of Catholics (Belfast Telegraph, 28 January 1993).

In the light of increasing political violence, the plans to disarm and civilianize the police were quickly dropped, and the RUC returned to its old dual roles of "normal" and security policing, although it was still to be subordinate to the army in the security field. In the process, any initial increase in acceptability of the RUC in Catholic areas quickly disappeared, and the force became the target of renewed suspicions and distrust.

The reforms - resulting firstly from British pressure on the Northern Ireland government and subsequently from the introduction of direct rule by the Westminster government following the suspension of Stormont in March 1972 - were not restricted to the structure and control of the security forces.

In 1972 a new office of a Director of Public Prosecutions was set up with full responsibility for the selection and prosecution of all serious criminal charges. There was a change in the internment process, which was now referred to as detention [without trial] and involved a system of judicial hearings rather than a decision by a government Minister. In August 1973 the Special Powers Act was replaced by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act (EPA) which re-enacted many of the previous Act's provisions. It also introduced non-jury trials for a wide range of "scheduled" offences and introduced far-reaching changes in the rules of evidence. In 1974 the EPA was supplemented by the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA), which unlike the EPA relates to the whole of the UK. Internment was eventually phased out in 1975 (for a fuller discussion of the current legal framework, see chapter 3).

By the mid-1970s it had become clear to the British government that there was no likelihood of any early agreed devolution of powers to some form of local assembly, and that direct rule by the Westminster government was likely to continue for the foreseeable future. In those circumstances the government produced a radical overhaul of its security strategy, designed to criminalise political violence and to de-emphasise its political dimensions. This involved stopping the use of detention without trial -though it stopped short of actually abolishing the power - and relying on the courts instead.

Another central element of this new strategy was the policy of returning the primary responsibility for law and order, including security, to the police, with the army now operating in a support role. This policy of re-establishing the primacy of the police, and restoring the main responsibility for law and order to the local security forces in general, including the UDR, became known as "Ulsterisation". Not only did it result in a further remilitarisation of the RUC, but the continuing IRA campaign inevitably led to significant increases in the size of both the RUC and the UDR. Although the UDR was originally intended to be primarily a part-time force, by 1988 46% of its overall strength of 6, 300 was full-time (Flackes and Elliott 1989, p. 398). As Hillyard (1986: 44) points out, since the vast majority of the personnel in both the UDR and RUC were Protestant, "the effect of the Ulsterisation policy, whatever its intention, was to replace British security personnel by Ulster Protestants".

The RUC quickly became involved in renewed controversy. Initially this focused on allegations of physical maltreatment of suspects being interrogated in the Castlereagh holding centre. By the early 1980s the use, sometimes with fatal consequences, of plastic bullets by the security forces had become a major issue, and 1982 saw the first allegations of an RUC "shoot-to-kill" policy. This latter issue led to the so-called Stalker affair, in which John Stalker, the Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester, was suspended from an inquiry into a number of incidents involving the use of lethal force by the RUC. Although this suspension was ostensibly related to allegations, subsequently found to be unjustified, surrounding aspects of his conduct within the Manchester police force, there was widespread suspicion that it was designed to abort the inquiry at a time when he seemed to be about to implicate senior RUC officers in either authorising or covering up such operations. The investigation was taken over by Colin Sampson, the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire, and ultimately resulted in disciplinary proceedings against more than 20 police officers, including two superintendents. The Police Authority decided, by a majority of only one, not to pursue disciplinary action against the then Chief Constable, Sir John Hermon, and two other senior RUC officers.

Just as the retirement of Hermon in 1989 seemed likely to bring an end to that controversy, the new Chief Constable, Hugh Annesley, was faced by almost equally damaging allegations of the leaking of security force documents to loyalist paramilitaries. An inquiry carried out by John Stevens, the Deputy Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire, found that while there had been collusion between security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, it was "restricted to a small number of members of the security forces and is neither widespread nor institutionalised" (quoted in Bew and Gillespie 1993: 234) and Stevens focused his main criticisms on the UDR rather than the RUC. Nevertheless, allegations of collusion continued to damage the prospects of improved relations between the RUC and the Catholic community.

The 1980s also saw the first real weakening of what had previously seemed the virtually unconditional support accorded to the RUC by the Protestant community. The enforcement of restrictions on some loyalist parades, and Protestant anger and frustration at the Anglo-Irish Agreement, resulted in over 500 incidents of attacks against the homes of RUC members and intimidation of their families within loyalist areas in 1986 (Royal Ulster Constabulary, 1986, x). While such overt manifestations of hostility have since largely died away, for almost the first time in the history of the Northern Ireland state the police have been faced with the antipathy, or at least ambivalence, of significant sections of the Protestant community.

The 1990s have already seen a number of further attempts to improve the acceptability of the security forces, particularly as regards relations with the Catholic community. Possibly the most significant move so far related to the UDR.

From the time of its establishment the UDR was seen by most Catholics as an undisciplined and sectarian force. Although it did attract up to 18% Catholic membership in its early days, by the end of the 1980s this had fallen to some 3% (Flackes and Elliott 1988, 396). While this may have to some extent resulted from an IRA campaign against Catholic members, it also clearly indicated that the regiment had a major credibility problem in the eyes of the Catholic community, a problem which has been exacerbated by the conviction of some of its members, or ex-members, on sectarian murder charges and on charges of links with loyalist paramilitaries.

In July 1992 the UDR was merged with the Royal Irish Rangers - a "regular" regiment in the British army - to form a new unit, the Royal Irish Regiment (RIR). The RIR, which like the UDR would have both full- and part-time soldiers, was to consist of one general service battalion of 900 soldiers with worldwide responsibilities and up to seven home service battalions (with a total strength of 6,000) for duty in Northern Ireland. Other regiments of the British army will continue to operate in Northern Ireland as required.

Although this amalgamation was first announced in the context of overall cutbacks in defence expenditure, it was widely perceived by Protestants to be the result of pressure from the Catholic community, supported by the government of the Republic of Ireland operating within the context of the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. Unfortunately the hostile reaction which this provoked from large sections of the Protestant community does not appear to have been matched by a more positive attitude towards this new regiment on the part of the Catholic community.

Return to publication contents


Policing in Northern Ireland is, at least theoretically, a tripartite responsibility: the Secretary of State is responsible for making and implementing security policy; the Chief Constable has independent direction and control of the RUC; and the Police Authority for Northern Ireland (PANI) has as its primary duty the maintenance of an adequate and efficient police service. While the Secretary of State, the Chief Constable and the Police Authority are each independent in the exercise of their respective functions, their roles are interrelated.

The Secretary of State
The Secretary of State is responsible for overseeing the statutory framework for the delivery of policing in Northern Ireland and for the provision of all funds. He also has a special responsibility for establishing security policy.

The Chief Constable
Operational control and direction of the RUC in the enforcement of the law are vested in the Chief Constable. The Chief Constable is not subject to direction on operational matters either by the Secretary of State or the Police Authority - indeed, the Authority has a duty to ensure that he is free from political pressure. The Chief Constable is, theoretically, ultimately responsible to the Authority, as the body representative of the community, for the discharge of his functions. However, it will be argued below that in practice Chief Constables have attained a high level of autonomy from PANI.

Police Authority for Northern Ireland
As has already been mentioned, the Police Act, 1 970 led to the establishment of a Police Authority for Northern Ireland (PANI), with a statutory responsibility to maintain an adequate and efficient police service. It is responsible for appointing the Chief Constable and other chief officers (i.e. Assistant Chief Constables and above) and acts as a complaints and disciplinary authority for such officers. PANI determines the size of the RUC; obtains police resources from the Secretary of State; and maintains financial and budgetary control of expenditure on the police service. In addition, it acts as a conduit between the community and the Chief Constable. Indeed, since 1990 it has had a statutory responsibility for making arrangements to consult the community about policing matters in consultation with the Chief Constable.

The Police Authority for Northern Ireland is the only one in the UK whose members are directly appointed by a Government Minister (the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland): in the rest of the UK membership is drawn from local councils and magistrates. The Secretary of State is required to ensure that as far as possible the Authority is representative of the Northern Ireland community and that certain specified interest groups are represented. Members are appointed to serve for three years but may be re-appointed to serve further terms. PANI has a Chairman, a Vice-Chairman and a maximum of twenty members. These would include representatives of the interests of local government and people involved in the legal profession, agriculture, industry, commerce, youth organisations and education.

The nature of the relationship between PANI and the Chief Constable has caused increasing concern. Although the Chief Constable reports to PANI on a regular basis, PANI cannot give any directions to the Chief Constable as to how policing is to be conducted, and although it can call for specific reports from the Chief Constable, he/she may refuse to comply with these requests if the Chief Constable feels that such a report would contain information which in the public interest ought not to be disclosed or is not needed for the discharge of the functions of the Police Authority (though the legislation does allow for PANI to appeal to the Secretary of State in such instances). PAM can, in exceptional circumstances, call for the resignation of the Chief Constable, but has no other effective sanctions at its disposal.

PANI has recently argued that the 1970 Police Act was flawed in that it did not define deafly enough the overlapping roles of the Authority, the police and Government in the tripartite structure. In particular, it argues that while PANI is responsible for obtaining the views of local people about policing it is unable to ensure that those views are reflected in strategic planning by the RUC, since there are no statutory mechanisms to achieve this. It goes on to argue that it is vital that the accountability of the Chief Constable be clarified unambiguously in statute and that the right of the Authority to approve the annual policing plan, in terms of both cost and policy, should be established (PANI, 1994: 6).

However, there appears to be no element of ambiguity as far as the present Chief Constable is concerned. A submission to the 1992 conference of the Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NICTU) quotes the Hunt Report, one previous British Prime Minister and two previous Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland in support of the contention that the establishment of PANI was intended to produce a situation in which the Chief Constable was to be accountable to an Authority specially designed to take account of the circumstances of political life in Northern Ireland and one which would have a more policy formation and proactive role than Police Authorities in Great Britain. Having argued that it could be a matter of debate as to whether or not the legislation or any of the previous Chief Constables of the RUC have regarded the Chief Constable as being, in any meaningful way, "accountable" to the Authority, the submission states that the issue is beyond debate with the present incumbent (Report of the Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU, 1990-1992).

It refers to a meeting of members of NICTU with the Chief Constable and outlines his position on his relationship to PAM. In essence, his basic position seemed to be that since the Northern Ireland legislation establishing PANI did not give it any more powers than the 1964 GB legislation, it was clearly Government's intention not to give any additional powers, and that PAM, in line with Police Authorities in Britain, has no authority over the police, and is primarily a provider body. If that changed he would recognise the democratic right of Parliament to change the law, but he would not see himself continuing as Chief Constable in those circumstances. In its submission to the Opsahl Commission, NICTU stated that the Chief Constable indicated that he would pay as much attention to a letter in the Irish News (the main nationalist morning newspaper in Northern Ireland) as he would to the Police Authority (quoted in Livingstone and Morrison, 1995:18).

In these circumstances, it is scarcely surprising that NICTU has declined to take up the offer of representation on PANI. This absence of real accountability is also the main reason for the refusal of the largest nationalist political party, the Social Democratic and LabourParty (SDLP), to take up representation on the Authority. Nor is Sinn Féin represented.

In a consultation document issued in 1994, the Government reiterated its commitment to the tripartite structure and outlined proposals designed to strengthen that structure. The document states that PANI will have responsibility, in conjunction with Chief Constable, for identifying objectives for the police relating to particular objectives identified by communities throughout Northern Ireland. But any differences between the Chief Constable and PAM, or between the objectives of PANI and those of the Secretary of State, would be resolved by the Secretary of State. Furthermore, PANI would be excluded from any say in the crucial areas of security policy objectives or related matters (NIC, 1994:10-11). It is difficult to see how these proposals could be seen as involving any meaningful increase in public accountability.

Community and Police Liaison Committees
As part of its commitment to promoting links between the RUC and the community, PANI, in conjunction with the RUC, has been actively encouraging the promotion of a network of Community and Police Liaison Committees (CPLCs) throughout Northern Ireland with District Councils assuming a key role. This network builds upon a number of Police Liaison Committees and local Security Committees which have operated in some areas since the re-organisation of local government in 1973. More recently it has encouraged local community groups to join with locally elected councillors to broaden the membership of such committees and to make them as comprehensively representative of each community as possible.

There are now nine committees rooted in local councils where both councillors and community representatives meet with the police, while another fifteen committees consist of councillors and police representatives alone. There are also four committees, unconnected with local councils, where the police and community representatives take part (Police Authority for Northern Ireland, 1994: 24-25). The overall objective of the CPLCs is to seek to ensure effective consultative procedures through which the community and the police can exchange views. The major weakness, from that perspective, is that the SDLP again refuses to participate, nor is Sinn Féin represented.

A study by Weizer (1992) concluded that while such committees provide a foundation for the development of a more robust liaison system, they were seriously limited, not only because of nationalists' unwillingness to participate in them, but by the committees' inability to influence, or in many instances even have placed on the agenda for discussion, many issues of real importance to local communities.

The Army
While security policy is the responsibility of the Secretary of State, it is implemented by the RUC in conjunction with the British army.

In 1969 British mistrust of both the RUC and the Stormont government led to an insistence on military primacy in security matters, with overall responsibility invested in the General Officer Commanding in Northern Ireland (GOC), though it was later conceded that there should be regular police-army consultations. While the RUC maintained independence in their own operations, these could only be undertaken within parameters set by the military.

By the mid-1970s, as has already been stated, the government began to revert to a policy of police primacy. The army was henceforth to revert to a secondary role, with its activities now mainly comprising border and street patrols, road checks, guard and escort duties, assistance to the police in search and arrest operations, and undercover work. Today, the army mainly works in support of the RUC. Where possible, patrols are supposed to have an RUC component and the first person on call if there is a problem is an RUC officer.

However, it must be stressed that this policy of "the primacy of the police" does not mean that the army comes under RUC command, but simply that soldiers support the police when necessary.

There is very close liaison between the army GOC and the RUC Chief Constable, and similar contacts down the chain of command in both forces. The army would retain an important role in any areas where the threat of political violence was still regarded as significant, though clearly the ceasefires have led, at least temporarily, to a very significant diminution of that role.

Indeed, as Walker (1992: 115) points Out, the criteria for military intervention remain open to fairly arbitrary change with little opportunity for proper parliamentary scrutiny, and the legal relationships between soldiers, police and other civil authorities are far from clear.

Return to Publication Contents


Legal Framework
As mentioned previously, in August 1973 the Special Powers Act was replaced by the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act (EPA) which implemented most of the recommendations of the Diplock Commission (1972). The EPA provided the police and the army with extensive powers to question, search, arrest and detain. It also established the so-called Diplock Courts - courts in which the guilt or innocence of persons accused of "scheduled" offences (those listed in a Schedule to the Act), as well as any sentence, are determined by a single judge, sitting alone in the absence of a jury, and where statements could be admitted as evidence in circumstances where they would be excluded in ordinary courts.

In 1974 the EPA was supplemented by the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act (PTA), which unlike the EPA relates to the whole of the UK but was originally designed only to deal with violence associated with Northern Ireland. (In 1984 it was extended to apply to international terrorism). The PTA allowed detention for up to seven days (any period after the initial 48 hours being authorised not by a judge but by a government minister), the banning of named organisations and the issuing of exclusion orders preventing people from entering the United Kingdom or moving freely between one part of the UK and another; it also introduced special powers of interrogation at airports and seaports.

There have also been radical reforms to the "ordinary" police powers in Northern Ireland, though in this case generally mirroring changes previously made in England. The Police and Criminal Evidence (NI)

Order 1989 (the PACE Order) included new Codes of Practice on matters such as the detention and treatment of suspects, the exercise of search powers and the seizure of property. A similar Code on the treatment of suspects under the EPA came into effect in January 1994.

Probably the most controversial change to the "ordinary" law came with the Criminal Evidence (NI) Order 1988 which fundamentally altered the law on the right to silence. This Order allows inferences of guilt to be drawn from a person's refusal to answer questions put by police officers during an interrogation session or refusal to give evidence at a subsequent trial. Although the changes to the law on the right to silence apply to all persons arrested by the police regardless of the suspected offence, in practice it has only so far been applied in some terrorist-related cases (Dickson, 1995: 73). It should be noted that this legislation has now been, in the main, replicated in Great Britain by virtue of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.

Dickson has pointed out that while "the influence of emergency laws on the ordinary laws of Northern Ireland is probably invisible to non-lawyers [it] nevertheless exists in practically all aspects of the criminal process" (Dickson, 1995: 73). In particular, the RUC frequently arrest people using emergency laws even when the arrest powers under the ordinary law would suffice, probably because the emergency laws can trigger a maximum detention period of seven days rather than just four.

The Army
The EPA confers on the army extensive powers of questioning, search and arrest. The army also has the power to detain people whom it arrests for up to four hours, during which the person arrested has no legal right of access to a solicitor. At the end of four hours detainees must either be released or handed over to the police for re-arrest. Although the army power of arrest extends to all offences, in practice it is confined to paramilitary-related offences. In exercising its functions, the army is legally entitled to use "such force as is reasonable in the circumstances", a phrase which has produced considerable controversy. In practice there is often an official reluctance to bring army personnel before the criminal courts, and where this does occur the case is decided in Diplock courts which have generally interpreted the phrase very widely. Indeed, until very recently it seemed all but impossible to obtain a conviction against a member of the armed forces in a fatal shooting case, whatever the circumstances (for further discussion of the legal position of the army, see Greer, 1993).

Complaints Procedure: the RUC
One particular area of concern has been the procedures for investigating and pursuing complaints against the police. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that the establishment of credible and speedy processes for dealing with complaints would be the single measure most likely to increase the legitimacy accorded to the police by the Catholic community.

The system for dealing with complaints against the RUC has been overhauled on three occasions since 1970, culminating with the establishment in 1988 of the Independent Commission for Police Complaints (ICPC). Its members are all appointed by the Secretary of State.

The Commission has two main functions. Firstly, it has a supervisory role over the police investigation of complaints. It has a statutory duty to supervise the investigation of any complaint - other than a complaint against an officer above the rank of Chief Superintendent - alleging that the conduct of a member of the police service resulted in the death of or serious injury to some other person; and it has the choice of whether or not it supervises the formal investigation of any other complaint against a police officer. The Commission also has a statutory duty to supervise the investigation of any matter referred to it by the Secretary of State or PANT and which, though not the subject of a formal complaint, affects or appears to affect the public interest; and it is permitted, at its discretion, to supervise the investigation of any other matter referred to it by the Chief Constable or by PANI, where there is the possibility that a police officer may have committed a criminal or disciplinary offence, if the circumstances are particularly grave or exceptional, even though a complaint has not been made by or on behalf of a member of the public.

While the actual investigation of complaints continues to be carried out by the police themselves, in its supervisory role of the police investigation of a complaint the Commission has the power to approve or veto the appointment of the investigating officer and gives directions on the conduct and scope of the investigation. When the Commission decides to supervise an investigation it appoints one of its own members to take charge, and that member will guide the investigation.

At the end of the investigation which the Commission has supervised, it must issue a statement saying whether it is satisfied with the way the investigation was carried out and, if appropriate, specifying any respect in which it was not satisfied. When the Chief Constable receives the Report, he must, if it indicates that a criminal offence may have been committed by a police officer, refer the report to the DPP who will decide whether or not to prosecute the officer in the criminal courts.

PANI acts as the complaints and discipline authority responsible for dealing with complaints against the most senior officers (i.e. those above the rank of Chief Superintendent). If PANI decides that formal investigation is necessary it is required to appoint an investigating officer and refer the case to the ICPC. The Commission must supervise the investigation of any complaint against a police officer alleging death or serious injury, but it has discretion to supervise the investigation of any other complaint where appropriate and, again, where it supervises an investigation it has the power to approve or veto the appointment of the investigating officer. In 1992, it was agreed that provision should be made to provide a monitoring role for the Commission where PANI decides to use its discretionary powers to deal with a complaint against a senior officer other than by formal investigation.

The second important function of the ICPC concerns police discipline, and in this respect its main role is to decide whether a police officer who is the subject of a complaint should be charged with an offence against police discipline, if the Deputy Chief Constable has not preferred a charge. The ICPC has power, in the last resort, to direct that disciplinary charges be brought, and in such cases the charges are heard by a tribunal composed of the Chief Constable and two members of the Commission.

The 1987 legislation included a provision which enables complaints of a less serious nature between the public and the police to be handled informally. In this way with the agreement of the complainant, mediation will be attempted to resolve the issue. The idea is to avoid time-consuming investigations and to try to ensure that the matter is settled amicably. However, if the matter cannot be resolved, the opportunity remains to use more formal procedures. The ICPC is also required to oversee this informal resolution procedure.

The most controversial aspect of the complaints procedure is the fact that the actual investigation is carried out by the force itself. Although the Chief Constable can, if he wishes, appoint an investigating officer from another police force in the UK, this discretion is very rarely exercised. Another area of contention relates to the ICPC's inability to initiate an investigation where no formal complaint has been made (as mentioned

above, such an investigation can only be initiated by the Secretary of State or PANI). The ICPC has recently repeated, again without success, an earlier request to have the power to "call in" for supervision, in the public interest, those matters considered by the Commission to involve grave or exceptional circumstances and where no formal complaint has been made (ICPC Triennial Review 199 1-1994: 6).

On 17 February 1995, the Secretary of State announced his intention to proceed with a number of changes in the police discipline system, arising out of a consultation paper circulated in 1993. Among these intended reforms are the removal of the so-called "double-jeopardy" rule, which previously barred disciplinary proceedings where an officer had been acquitted of a criminal charge, and the adoption of a lower standard of proof in police disciplinary hearings than the present criminal standard. The standard of proof now demanded for the police is broadly the same standard faced by other public servants in disciplinary charges. This change has been strongly resisted by both the RUC management and the Police Federation, whose representatives argued in an interview with us that "it would be totally unfair to have police officers apply standards to everyone else knowing that the same standards will not be applied to themselves." This issue continues to be contested by the various staff associations within the RUC.

In recent years, there have been two developments aimed at both safeguarding those in police custody and helping develop public confidence in the police. In 1991, PANI, with the agreement of the Chief Constable, established five panels of lay visitors who visit, without prior notice, each of the police stations which are designated for holding people in police custody who are suspected of involvement in non-terrorist criminal offences.

Pressure to extend the lay visiting scheme to the Holding Centres for those suspected of involvement in paramilitary crime has so far been strongly, and successfully, resisted by the RUC. However, in January 1993 the Secretary of State announced the appointment of Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC as the first Independent Commissioner for the Holding Centres. His main role is to observe, comment and report on the conditions under which persons are detained in those centres, and to ensure that both statutory and administrative safeguards are being properly applied. In late 1994, a significant step forward was achieved when it was announced that henceforward the Independent Commissioner would be allowed to sit in on the interviews conducted with suspects at holding centres.

Complaints Procedure: the Army
Criminal complaints against military personnel are investigated by the RUC, assisted by the Royal Military Police; claims in civil law for compensation or damages are handled by a Civil Representative from the Northern Ireland Office in the case of alleged property loss, or by the Ministry of Defence in the case of alleged personal injury.

The army's own complaints system is designed to deal with allegations of misconduct not amounting to a crime or serious civil wrong - such as incivility, abuse, harassment, improper or insensitive behaviour. Investigations are undertaken either by the unit itself or, if serious, by the Royal Military Police. The complainant may be asked to provide a statement as to the facts and allegations ,and may be visited by a Civil Representative or unit officer to clarify matters, but no formal hearings are held to which the person is invited or has the opportunity to confront the relevant soldiers.

The Civil Representative gives a report to the unit together with a view - he may suggest how the complaint could best be dealt with. A report is sent to the Central Complaints Office (CCO) at Army HQ which examines the evidence, and the Civil Adviser to the GOC then deals with the written response, including a notification of the decision to the complainant, who may also be visited by a Civil Representative, especially if the complaint is upheld. If a complaint is sustained, the remedy will be an apology and possibly also disciplinary action; the nature of any disciplinary action to be taken is decided by the unit Commanding Officer and this is not notified to the complainant. The main criticisms of these procedures relate to the facts that they do not allow for participation by complainants and that complaints are investigated by soldiers rather than by outsiders (Walker, 1992: 125-7).

In January 1993 the first Independent Assessor for Military Complaints Procedures was appointed. The Assessor is responsible for looking at the systems and procedures for dealing with formal non-criminal complaints and he can recommend changes in procedures. He is not, however, responsible for individual complaints, for compensation cases, nor for complaints which could involve criminal charges.

There are serious concerns surrounding certain aspects of the inquest system in Northern Ireland, and the effects that these have in dealing with deaths arising from the actions of members of the security forces (the following section has been drawn from Hadfield, 1993: 10-12). An inquest in Northern Ireland now returns no verdicts as such. Since 1981, a verdict must take the form of "factual findings" only. Neither the coroner nor the jury is permitted to express "any opinion on questions of criminal or civil liability". In practice an inquest is not opened until the coroner has been informed that no criminal proceedings will be brought. Where a person is charged with a criminal offence, the coroner must adjourn the inquest, "in the absence of reason to the contrary", until after the completion of the criminal proceedings, including an appeal. This can lead to lengthy delays in the holding of an inquest.

At the conclusion of the inquest, the coroner or the jury delivers their findings, which are confined to "a statement of who the deceased was, and how, when and where, he or she died". No qualifications or additions are permitted. There is no legal appeal against the decision, although the proceedings may be subject to judicial review.

Unlike the situation in England and Wales, the coroner cannot compel any person to give evidence "who is suspected of causing the death or has been charged or is likely to be charged with an offence relating to the death". If such a person, for example, a police officer or soldier, volunteers to offer information, in practice this generally tends to be done in the person's absence by way of the submission of a written statement to the inquest. It is effectively not possible to test or challenge the contents of such a statement other than by direct testimony from other witnesses at the inquest. Furthermore, if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland believes that a part of any evidence (including documentary evidence) puts national security at risk, he/she can issue a Public Interest Immunity Certificate which may bar the disclosure of all such evidence to the inquest.

These weaknesses have led to an almost total lack of confidence within the nationalist community as to the effectiveness of the inquest system as a means of determining the circumstances surrounding deaths at the hands of members of the security forces.

Return to Publication Contents


Before moving on to the community studies themselves, it is important to look briefly at two aspects of policing in Northern Ireland which have assumed increasing importance in recent years: community policing and public order policing.

Community Policing
As Brewer points out, there is considerable confusion over what is meant by the concept of "community policing". In this report, the terms community relations and community affairs policing will be used, interchangeably with "neighbourhood" and "beat" policing, to describe the deployment "of manpower in such a way that officers patrol a 'beat' on foot in order to build up familiarity with the local area", while the terms community relations and community affairs will be used to refer to "a style which emphasises the development of good community relations between police and community, normally via active police involvement in, and contact with, the local community" (Brewer, 1991: 93).

The RUC Community Relations Branch was formed in 1970, primarily as a response to some of the criticisms levelled by the Hunt Report (1969). The duties of the community relations units involved not only specific juvenile liaison work with young offenders and their families, but also general community relations work among juveniles and community groups connected with the young. Officers from neighbourhood units may sometimes participate in some of the activities organised by community relations units, not just to help out but also as a means of building up their own links with the local community which they are serving. In April 1993 the Community Relations Branch was replaced by the Community Affairs Branch, which has a wider remit and increased responsibilities and incorporates community relations, crime prevention, juvenile liaison, domestic violence, some aspects of 'accident prevention and the RUC band. It has "particular responsibility for actively pursuing contact with all sections of the Northern Ireland community, to promote co-operation and understanding, and so encourage the growth of support for the RUC" (Royal Ulster Constabulary, 1993: 61).

Community or "beat" policing in Northern Ireland faces all the problems associated with this form of policing in any modem industrial society, but with several extra dimensions. Firstly, in Northern Ireland there are really two broad communities - which are designated in this report as the Catholic/nationalist and the Protestant/unionist communities which are highly segregated, both in terms of physical and social separation. Secondly, as has been noted, the RUC has historically been closely associated with one of those communities - the Protestant/unionist community. Finally, the normal dangers associated with community policing are greatly increased in a situation where, between 1969 and 1994, paramilitary activity has cost the lives of 197 police officers and of 101 members of the police reserve (RUCR) (Royal Ulster Constabulary, 1994).

Thus while the RUC management states its commitment to the practice of some form of community policing in all areas of Northern Ireland, since the security of their officers has to be the first priority, the actual form of such policing is clearly influenced by the security situation in particular areas. In extreme circumstances it could, at the time of the fieldwork, involve two RUC officers accompanied by possibly fourteen soldiers; it is highly questionable if this can really be considered to constitute a genuine form of community policing, although the RUC maintain that some of the most successful community policing is carried out in areas with high levels of political violence, while arguing that, for obvious reasons, their successes cannot be publicised. However, successful community policing in Northern Ireland is also impeded by other factors. Firstly, because of security concerns, few if any police officers presently live in working-class Catholic areas nor, indeed, socialise to any significant extent with working-class Catholics. Since the mid-1980s a somewhat similar situation has developed in relation to working-class Protestants. While the pattern of few police officers living in working-class areas is probably also true for most police forces in Great Britain, it will be argued later in the report that this "distancing" is of particular significance in the context of Northern Ireland. Secondly, suspicions exist in some quarters that, at least in some areas, community policing is seen by the police as primarily a means of gathering low-level intelligence information, rather than as a means of dealing effectively with "ordinary" crime and developing relations with local communities.

Public Order Policing
The policing of such events as marches, rallies and paramilitary funerals has become an increasingly controversial issue in Northern Ireland in recent years, with attention now primarily focused on the policing of marches by Protestant organisations such as the Orange Order and Apprentice Boys, many of which follow "traditional routes". However, many such marches have always passed close to, or even through, Catholic areas, and this situation has been exacerbated by demographic changes.

The Public Order (NI) Order 1987 extended the powers of the police in dealing with public processions. In particular it gave the police the power to impose conditions on all processions, including "traditional" marches. The conditions can include the re-routing of the procession or prohibiting it from entering any place specified in the police directions. However, opposition to the procession is not, in itself, sufficient for re-routing; the police must reasonably believe that the procession may result in serious public disorder serious damage to property, serious disruption to the life of the community or that it has an intimidatory purpose. As will be shown later in the report, decisions concerning the possible re-routing of such marches, and operational practices in policing them, can cause serious tensions between the police and Catholic and/or Protestant communities.

Return to Publication Contents


In the wake of the paramilitary ceasefires, the long-running debate concerning policing in Northern Ireland has further intensified. There is broad agreement that a widely acceptable police service is an essential ingredient - and some would argue a prerequisite - of any lasting peace settlement. However, at this point the consensus quickly breaks down.

Indeed, there is not even agreement on how the debate should proceed. On the one hand, the Chief Constable has argued for a "government-led" debate and has suggested that the government should establish a commission on the future of the RUC (to examine policing procedures and Systems of accountability), chaired by a "distinguished Northern Ireland person" (Irish News, 27 January 1995). On the other hand, PANI has opted for a community-led" approach and has already begun a new "community consultation" initiative, intended to give people and organisations from all walks of life the chance to have their say about the kind of police service they want. This will not only look at future policing needs and priorities, but also at the whole framework of the RUC and the relationship between the police and the community (Belfast Telegraph, 4 January 1995).

When we move on to actual proposals, it is clear that there has been little change in the polarisation of attitudes along sectarian lines. Sinn Féin continues to argue that the only way to achieve an acceptable police force is the disbandment of the RUC (a view supported by 45% of Catholic respondents in a recent opinion poll (Irish Independent, 3 February 1995). On the other hand, unionist politicians continue to argue that there is no real need for fundamental reform (and Protestant opinion appears to support them; in the opinion poll referred to above, fewer than 10% of Protestant respondents were even prepared to support such largely symbolic measures as the renaming of the RUC or a change in uniform).

It would, of course, be dangerous to base important decisions on one snap opinion poll. Furthermore, while it has become the convention to talk about Catholic and Protestant attitudes towards the police, as though we were dealing with two relatively homogeneous groups, this study has highlighted the wide divergencies, not only between these two communities, but also within the communities even at local levels, and between the perceptions of communities of the same religious composition in different parts of the region. In so doing, it has also highlighted the difficulties in reaching any widely agreed solution to the issue of policing this divided society.

There is a fairly general agreement that any solution will require a widely accepted political settlement Indeed, most unionist politicians would tend to see this as sufficient in itself (since it would lead not only to the end of violence, but also to a situation in which nationalist politicians and their constituents could express allegiance to the state and to its institutions, including the police force). Until very recently this also seemed to be substantially the view of the RUC itself, although the force is now stressing both its willingness and its ability to adapt to changing circumstance. Indeed, the Chief Constable has now sketched out suggestions for a two-tier policing structure, with a strong emphasis on community policing by locally based officers in close contact with the communities they are policing. However, both tiers would remain firmly rooted within the RUC (Belfast Telegraph, 15 March 1995).

Nationalist politicians see the situation very differently. They argue that to adopt the view that the policing problem is essentially an offshoot of the broader political problem, or can be solved simply by some organisational restructuring within the RUC, is to miss the fundamental point that policing has been, and continues to be, an important constituent part of that broader problem, and as such the policing problem needs to be resolved as part of achieving that broader settlement. This latter perspective is generally supported by our studies of Catholic areas.

The east Belfast study and, though to a much lesser extent, the Derry study, do show some credit being given by Catholic communities to the efforts of the RUC to repair relationships. The east Belfast study also highlights the role "sensitive" local commanders can play in improving those relationships. However, whatever the differences in emphasis, the studies of the three Catholic communities support the view that the historical legacy of the RUC, some of its current policies and practices, and its composition, require fairly fundamental reforms to achieve a situation in which the police force is widely acceptable to Catholics in Northern Ireland.

The SDLP, arguing that Northern Ireland is probably unique among divided societies in operating a uniform police structure, has suggested the creation of four regional forces to replace the RUC. However, Brogden (1994: 18-19) claims that such a structure would enjoy neither the advantages of local, communal contact nor the efficiency benefits of centralisation. He goes on to outline a different approach to restructuring with the creation of a two-tier police service, with a reconstituted RUC assuming responsibility for all intercommunal crime and for the more serious offences such as homicide and rape, while locally recruited civilianised forces, with powers of arrest limited to citizens powers, would provide "local policing by local people". Local communities could choose to have the RUC deal with local crime, but conversely they could select local policing structures to resolve low-level crime and interpersonal disputes.

Certainly either of these suggestions, and particularly the latter, could have a significant impact on some of the most deeply held grievances within Catholic communities. However, even if practical problems, such as the clear definition of demarcation lines, whether geographical or functional, could be resolved, they would still seem to be faced with a major political hurdle.

Although our studies suggest that there is a significant, and increasing, disquiet among sections of the Protestant population with regard to particular aspects of current policing, the overall perception of the Protestant population remains supportive of the RUC, and anything which was seen as the effective disbandment of the RUC would be seen as a betrayal of a force which has been in the front line of protecting them for more than twenty five years, and which has paid a high price in that role. Any measure which was seen in that light would, therefore, almost certainly lead to considerable political opposition from the Protestant community, and might simply replace one political problem with another. In that sense, discussion of overall structures is primarily a political issue and we will focus here on issues which will need to be dealt with, whatever structures emerge

Police Complaints Procedures

With the exception of the unionist political representatives in Derry - who admitted that they had little experience of the formal police complaints procedure, and who in any event seemed somewhat out of touch with the views of constituents - there was very little confidence in the present system. The ICPC maintains that while it would like to see some changes, such as having the power to "call in" cases, it is broadly satisfied with the present system and all that is really required is some "fine tuning".

However, the fact is that of 1,232 allegations of assault made in the period 1989-1992 by people arrested under the emergency legislation, the ICPC was unable to substantiate a single one of these allegations; the reason repeatedly given, apart from the complainant's refusal to cooperate with the investigation, was insufficient evidence" (Dickson and Millar, 1993:90). At the very least, this casts serious doubts on the effectiveness of the system, although, as mentioned earlier, it must be pointed out that the ultimate responsibility for deciding whether or not to prosecute in a case which might involve a criminal offence rests not with the ICPC but with the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Furthermore, the ICPC point out that most complaints involve the word of the complainant against the word of the police officer(s), without independent evidence, and argue that the proposed changes relating to the standard of proof required in disciplinary hearings would make it easier to deal with such cases. However, it seems clear from our studies that for many people the key issue is the continuing perception of a system in which the police investigate themselves - even though, as was stressed earlier, the investigations are supervised by the ICPC. It would appear, therefore, that while the actual investigations are carried out by officers within the police service itself, there is very little prospect of achieving widespread confidence in the system.

It is interesting that both RUC and Police Federation representatives told us that they were not opposed in principle to independent investigations, although the Federation representatives stressed that they would need to see specific proposals before coming to a definitive view. The RUC management stressed the practical difficulties, in particular who, other than the police, would train the investigators. However, there would seem to be a number of professions other than the police service which have the necessary investigatory skills and backgrounds, and even it were true that the initial recruitment to any independent investigative agency would have to rely heavily on officers from the RUC or other police forces, this in itself would not negate the value of such an agency. There is ample evidence from various walks of life that people moving from one organisation to another do not necessarily bring with them, or long retain, their previous allegiances. The ICPC would argue that there is no evidence that an independent investigative agency would be more effective in proving cases against the police. However, the evidence from our studies suggests that it would, at least, enjoy greater confidence.

We strongly recommend, therefore, the creation of a totally independent investigative agency, not involving any serving police officers. This investigative agency must be provided with sufficient powers to ensure full cooperation from both police service management and individual officers.

Catholic Recruitment to the Police Service

The position of the RUC management on the recruitment of Catholics has consistently been that Catholics are both welcome and wanted within the RUC, and the main impediments to the recruitment of more Catholics rest within the Catholic communities themselves, or with the failure to reach a political solution in the province. In a recent interview the Chief Constable stressed that this welcome to Catholics applied whatever their political affiliations:

"I want policemen and women first I don' t want men and women who say I am a nationalist policeman, I am a loyalist policeman, I am a unionist policeman. I want policemen and women who will give their loyalty to providing an impartial police service for the well-being of all the people in this community. Their private voting interest, their private personal views about government and the way the UK should be managed - that is a matter for them" (Irish News, 27 January 1995).

In the same interview he took heart from the fact that the number of Catholics applying to join the RUC has increased dramatically since the IRA ceasefire. He said that Catholic applications received as a result of the RUC's latest recruitment campaign, amounted to 21.5% of the total received, whereas before the ceasefire only 12% of those seeking to join the force were Catholics. He said that he strongly hoped that "in the fullness of time", the religious balance of the police force would reflect that of the community as a whole (Irish News, 26 January 1995).

It is true that this represents a significant and welcome improvement, but even leaving aside the fact that 21.5% is still only about half the proportion of Catholics in the population as a whole, the Chief Constables views seem optimistic for a number of reasons.

Our studies have shown that there is clearly substantial truth in his analysis of some of the major impediments to Catholic recruitment, and this would seem to be confirmed by the 1993/94 Community Attitudes Survey in which 72 percent of Catholic respondents identified the fear of intimidation or attack as a factor which would deter them from joining the police force in Northern Ireland, compared to only 20 per cent who identified a lack of support for the system of government as a factor. However our studies also provided significant evidence that factors associated with the RUC itself were also of fundamental importance in limiting Catholic, and even more so "nationalist" recruitment. In particular, the view persisted among many Catholics that the RUC remained essentially a Protestant or unionist force; a view reinforced for many by the symbolism and trappings of the force. Even apolitical settlement will not, on its own resolve, that issue.

A change in name and the removal of those symbols strongly linking the force to a state from which they have felt alienated, would seem to be essential elements in making the police service more acceptable to those Catholics whose long-term political aspirations may favour removal of the British presence. While Protestants would clearly not actively support such moves, one might hope that they would accept them in the context of an overall political settlement which promised peace while not threatening their sense of identity.

We strongly recommend, therefore, a change in name and the removal of much of the existing symbolism of the RUC as an essential first element in seeking to make the force more acceptable to nationalists.

However, there may be an even more serious impediment to achieving a religiously/politically balanced police force. In recent months there has been considerable speculation, encouraged in part by the Secretary of State, that in the event of prolonged peace there will have to be a severe cutback in the establishment of the RUC. In his recent interview, the Chief Constable dismissed suggestions that the RUC was facing a drastic reduction in its overall strength in the near future, and said that he foresaw "a steady level of recruitment against a steady level of wastage and I see in that steady level of recruitment a growing number of members of the Catholic faith and they will be very welcome to the RUC" (Irish News, 26 January 1995).

Nevertheless it is difficult to believe that, in the light of pressures on public expenditure, the police service could long avoid considerable reductions in numbers in the event of a "peace settlement". In that event, it is equally difficult to see how, in a contracting force, the proportion of Catholics can be significantly and rapidly increased, particularly in view of the Chief Constable's position that the "merit principle" must continue to be the overriding consideration in recruitment. Lennon has calculated that even if any required overall reduction in the strength of the police force could be achieved largely by running down the part-time and full-time reserves, and even if 50% of new recruits were Catholic, then in ten years time Catholics would still only comprise about 25% of the police force (Lennon, 1995:156).

Obviously the types of restructuring suggested by the SDLP or Brogden would facilitate the process of increasing Catholic involvement in policing. In the absence of such measures, the government may well have to grasp the nettle of what is likely to be an almost equally controversial issue; the possibility of accepting the principle of reverse discrimination in recruitment to the police service. This would be strongly resisted by the RUC management, not only on the grounds that not adhering to the merit principle would inevitably lead to a lower standard of recruit and thus a worse police service, but that it would be offensive to Catholic officers.

Community Policing

There was almost unanimous support in our studies for much greater use of "proper" community policing. The basic RUC position would be that this will develop naturally with the establishment of peaceful conditions in the province and, as referred to earlier in this section, the Chief Constable has stated the force's willingness and ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

In the wake of the ceasefires, the police have been making moves towards "demilitarisation" and it is important that this process be continued. However, this is unlikely, in itself, to lead to effective community policing. Firstly, as Brogden (1995:19) points out, the RUC cannot simply or quickly convert to community policing after more than 25 years of primarily paramilitary style policing. Secondly, the problem of the distancing of the police from the communities which they are policing was referred to by a number of respondents, both Catholic and Protestant The most effective community policing would be that carried out by officers indigenous to the communities they are policing. Here again, Brogden's proposals have an obvious attraction.

In the absence of such a drastic restructuring, we would suggest that a substantial retraining programme will be required, involving, among other things, a further extension of the human/community awareness training for new recruits, first introduced by the RUC in 1991, and subsequently developed into a Community Awareness Programme in partnership with the Mediation Network. This should involve not only extending the programme to all officers, but should also include a significant input from local communities themselves. Furthermore, if there is a policy, as suggested in the east Belfast study and in interviews with RUC management, of handpicking community police officers, then it needs to be further developed.

We would urge, therefore, that the "demilitarisation" of policing needs to be developed as quickly as is practically possible, that there should be a substantial retraining programme to equip police officers for a significantly changed role, and that any policy of careful selection of community police officers should be further developed. This might also involve, initially at least, the concentration of Catholic officers in nationalist areas.


In a recent quantitative study, some 50 per cent of young Catholics and 12 per cent of young Protestants reported experiencing harassment by the police or the army at some time (McVeigh, 1994). It is true that the study identified the problems of defining harassment - problems also pointed out by several of our respondents - and ultimately settled for self-definitions (which was similar to the approach adopted by the Metropolitan Police in dealing with racism). In any event, whatever problems there may be in arriving at an agreed definition, the figures, and particularly the religious imbalance, are disturbing. Our studies also suggest that there is a strong perception of harassment among young people, particularly although by no means exclusively, among young Catholics. Insofar as these perceptions may be justified, the solution lies in part in some of our earlier suggestions; relating to recruitment, training and the establishment of a complaints procedure widely recognised as being fair and effective. However, there is one particular aspect which we would suggest needs to be dealt with more directly. It was clear, particularly from the Derry study, that the use of emergency legislation was, in itself, widely perceived as harassment, not only of individuals but also of whole communities.

We would, therefore, strongly recommend the government to move rapidly in repealing much of the existing emergency legislation, on the grounds discussed above, as well as on the ground of human rights concerns. The case for such action has, of course, been strengthened by the ceasefires.


There was a strong sense, again by no means restricted to the Catholic communities, that the police were not sufficiently accountable to the community. At one level this clearly requires that the police service should be more genuinely accountable to the Police Authority. This is particularly important in determining policies in areas such as security and public order policing, which, as we have seen, can have such an impact on police/community relations. We would argue that this position is not incompatible with maintaining the operational independence of the police.

We strongly support the view that the relationships between the Chief Constable and the Police Authority be clearly defined and that, in particular, PANI be provided with statutory mechanisms to ensure that its views - in its role as representing the community - are properly taken on board by the police service and reflected in both planning and practices. We would also urge the government to devolve, as soon as practically possible, responsibility for policing in Northern Ireland to some locally accountable, agreed political institution.

At a local level it is important that the Community and Police Liaison Committees be strengthened. Obviously, this would be partially achieved by a political settlement which led to nationalist politicians feeling able to participate in those committees. However, other problems would remain. As demonstrated by Protestant residents in the Derry study, people felt that, even with local political representatives participating in these committees, they really had no mechanism to ensure that their feelings about the policing of their area were listened to. Representatives have no statutory right to demand an answer from the police, or to play any real part in decision making. While the RUC has stated it would welcome a strengthening of the CPLCs, and in particular an improvement in the representation on these Committees, it would argue that not only would statutory rights to demand answers be undesirable, but they could, indeed, be counter-productive in destroying the essence of cooperation. However, it does seem clear from these studies that some mechanisms need to be devised to attend to the concerns of the communities.

We recommend, therefore, that urgent attention be given to the strengthening of the Community and Police Liaison Committees: by broadening their membership to include more representation from local communities alongside the elected representatives, who may in fact have only superficial contact with many of the communities; by the implementation of mechanisms to give community representatives a greater say in setting the agendas for these Committees; and by ensuring that their views are given proper consideration in the development of policing priorities, policies and strategies at local level.

The various studies have, we believe, highlighted both the complexities of the issues surrounding the development of broadly acceptable policing structures in Northern Ireland, and the importance of achieving solutions to the often complex and inter-related problems. The ceasefires have reinforced the need to search for such solutions, and have created an environment which is probably more conducive than at any time in the last twenty five years to achieving significant reforms. It is vitally important that the opportunity should not be allowed to slip away.

Return to Publication Contents

© Centre for the Study of Conflict and the Author(s)
Last Modified by Martin Melaugh :

Back to the top of this page