By Jamie Bryson
The ‘new beginning’ for policing, which saw- in effect- the disbandment of the RUC, ‘reformed’ as the PSNI, was a significant concession to the nationalist/republican (‘N/R’) community who had elevated the RUC to one of their (many) central grievances during the Belfast Agreement negotiations.
This concession, which in basic terms boiled down to the reality that the N/R community objected to the RUC for various reasons (many of which were wholly contrived), and this strategy included the political objective of seeking the disbandment of the RUC so as to ‘legitimise’ the grievances which those who supported the IRA claimed were a driving force behind their terrorist campaign.
However, when you conceive (as a concession to one political ideology) a ‘new beginning’ in the womb of politics, then inherent within the DNA of that ‘new beginning’ is a political ethos which has baked into it the very reason for its conception: to win, and maintain, the support of one specific political community.
It is therefore obvious that in doing so, given the polarised nature of Northern Ireland, that focusing on placating one community, would alienate another. And so it has emphatically come to pass.
The judgment of Scoffield J this week has illuminated the extent of political influence still exerted over operational decisions of the PSNI by the weaponisation of Sinn Fein’s support (or real/perceived threat to withdraw it) for policing.
It is a damming indictment on the senior leadership of the PSNI and shows a Chief Constable, and senior management team, entirely in the pocket of one political ideology but more than that it raises fundamental questions about the capability of the Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton who, on one view, comes out of the judgment very poorly on a professional level.
That may, or may not, be unfair. At the end of the day the assessment as to DCC Hamilton’s capacity for decision making is that only of one person, albeit the Chief Constable (who is hardly himself known for competency). There may be, or may not be, other officers who take a more positive view of DCC Hamilton.
But all of that remains secondary to what I’d call the pendulum issue. The PSNI from its inception sought to remedy a real or perceived lack of support for policing from the N/R community. As a result, the PSNI overcompensated. It has appeased republicans on a level that is, in truth, a scandal. At the same time, the PSNI have taken the opposite approach to unionists/loyalists, sometimes to demonstrate to Sinn Fein how ‘robust’ they will be with that community.
The pendulum, in over-compensating for perceived past issues with the RUC (which I do not accept), swung so far to the N/R side, that the bias and two-tier nature of policing became baked into the DNA of the PSNI.
It is beyond any dispute that the rule of law must prevail, and- in our constitutional arrangements- that it is policed by the police service. But we also need a police service that can command the support, particularly in the ‘power sharing’ nature of Northern Ireland, of the whole community: that means unionists/loyalists as well as nationalists/republicans and those who ostensibly claim to be unaligned (i.e, Alliance).
Having no police, vigilantism or the rule of the jungle is not an option. The police service being the only force for law and order is the only show in town.
That means there is no option other than resolving the present issues, and ensuring we have a police force which is politically independent and treats everyone equal under the law, and ensures everyone is equally subject to the law.
The present leadership is hopelessly compromised. They are (as the PSNI inherently have been structurally for twenty-five years) wedded to the appeasement of one political ideology, and that provides no basis for the rule of law, or a police service which can have the confidence of all sides of the community.
Whilst that political pro-nationalist bias has run throughout the PSNI for more than two decades, the problem for Simon Byrne- and those around him- is that they have been caught in the act and the evidence is there in black and white in a damming High Court judgment.
Therefore, he must go. How he survived the equally biased and appalling surrender of the ‘public interest’ to republican interests at the Storey funeral remains a mystery, but survive it he did. This time, there is no escape hatch.
Those who know him describe a stubborn man who is unlikely to see the error of his ways. That may be so, and if it is, then it is for the Policing Board to remove him. The alternative is to have a police force which is to unionism/loyalism which (it is claimed) the RUC were to nationalism/republicanism.
That hardly seems consistent with the purported objectives of the Belfast Agreement and ‘power sharing’.
Not wishing to give anyone the ‘kiss of death’, but worse could be done that temporarily appointing ACC Bobby Singleton as Chief Constable. Anyone familiar with the pages of Unionist Voice will know my relationship with ACC Singleton has not always been a good one.
But, in all fairness to ACC Singleton, he- unlike many others- displays a real commitment to fronting up and explaining decisions and, if there is learning for the PSNI, to accept that and implement such learning going forward. He is equally committed to engagement- with all sections of the community- and has worked hard over recent years with his community engagement team to implement that vision of policing.
He is someone (and indeed, the only person in the senior management team) who, in my view anyway, could command the support of the vast majority of all sections of the community. That is not to say his reign would be without controversy or disagreements, but I think at least with ACC Singleton there would be a confidence in his decisions (even disagreeable ones) being based on a proper fair analysis and equal application of the law. He also understands Northern Ireland because, put simply, he comes from a working class community in Northern Ireland.
Finally, I would like to say (and perhaps, in the past I have failed to recognise this point in public contributions) that in the current controversy there are families who lost innocent loved ones during the conflict. The pain of all victims, on all sides, is to be recognised and respected. The victims of those killings at Sean Graham’s grieve the same way as the victims of the IRA atrocities perpetrated at La Mon, Shankill, Kingsmills, Enniskillen etc. Their pain shouldn’t be minimised or lost in the midst of all of this.
Loyalism, in 1994, expressed “abject and true remorse to all innocent victims” of the conflict. I think that expression was genuine, and by logical extension, I do think there is an onus on loyalism to be considerate as to the pain of all innocent victims (unlike Sinn Fein’s constant glorifying the pain of victims of the IRA).
That, of course, doesn’t extend to acquiescing to re-writing the past or failing to carefully challenge the use of victims issues to promote a particular political legacy narrative (and shame on the nationalist/republicans who in many cases use the hurt of victims from their community for political gain and to promote a particular legacy narrative). But that approach must be taken carefully, so as not to enhance any innocent victim’s pain.
If we are all genuine about a shared Northern Ireland in which the key institutions of the state command the support of both major traditions, then that means there must be significant reform of the PSNI in order to swing the pendulum back into the middle, to a place of independence and equality under the law, rather than the continual substitution of the public interest for republican interests.