Northern Ireland’s Lessons for American Policing

Not that long ago, Americans would regularly go to Northern Ireland to offer advice on reforming the region’s notoriously repressive policing. Happily for Northern Ireland, and tragically for the United States, the lessons now run in the other direction.

For nearly three decades, Northern Ireland suffered sustained civil strife often referred to as “The Troubles.” For much of the last century, the mainly Protestant majority that defended the union with Great Britain dominated the mostly Catholic minority that preferred joining the Irish Republic. Firmly in control of the local legislature, the unionist majority entrenched systemic discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting, and government against the Catholic nationalists. Think Mississippi or South Carolina, with the unionists and nationalists mirroring White and Black Americans, respectively.

Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, nationalists ultimately took to the streets in peaceful protests and demonstrations. As in the U.S. South, these attempts were met with violence from the majority population. Yet in contrast to the U.S., what followed was an escalating cycle of paramilitary violence on both sides that would last for more than a generation. The tragedy in no small part resulted from the response of the authorities. Neither the local government in Belfast, nor the national government in London’ did much of anything — the Irish phrase would be “[expletive] all” — to undo the legacy of subordination. Much simpler was using the military in policing and militarizing the police.

In a move that would have pleased Donald Trump or Tom Cotton, the military took center stage early on. When the local police proved unable or unwilling to protect the nationalist community, London sent British troops to patrol the streets of Belfast, Derry, and other towns and cities in Northern Ireland. The results were predictable. At first many nationalists welcomed the restoration of order. But in short order, the reality of soldiers, military vehicles, and checkpoints took hold.

Inevitably, the minority community came to view the troops as an occupying force and responded with peaceful protests as well as violence. In particular, paramilitary bloodshed persisted, both from such groups as the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and various “loyalist” counterparts. A symbolic point of no return occurred in 1972 on “Bloody Sunday,” when British soldiers killed thirteen civilians during a protest march (one more died later). But the troops did not leave, nor did the civil strife end. Instead they remained deployed for over twenty-five years. At its height, the number of soldiers hit 21,000, this to police a society of 1.5 million.

Then there were the police themselves. Known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Northern Ireland’s police force would reassume its role as the proverbial first line of defense to maintain law and order, with the Army serving as a complement. In composition and approach, the RUC eerily anticipated the current state of policing in the United States.

To take one parallel, the RUC reflected the majority community almost exclusively. Available figures show that Catholics consistently made up less than ten percent of the force. At the time, the authorities defended this imbalance on the ground that few Catholics sought to join since they feared retaliation from the IRA and other paramilitaries. Yet the RUC was also overwhelmingly Protestant before the Troubles. Historically the nationalist population had long perceived the police as an alien power to keep it in line and subservient.

In addition, the RUC responded the civil unrest by itself militarizing. In sharp contrast to the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland’s police carried weapons, including rifles and submachine guns; wore prominent body armor; and drove through neighborhoods in heavily armored land rovers. Add to all this the RUC’s sheer size, at one point reaching over 13,000 full-time and reserve members. The effect was the presence of a further occupying force, second only to the Army itself. As one visiting U.S. Federal judge remarked at the time, Northern Ireland was one of the most heavily policed societies in the world.

To any American viewing today’s news videos, it should come as no surprise that heavily arming an unrepresentative police force produced systemic abuse. The patterns of excess in Northern Ireland, again were eerily familiar, including: displays of contempt for the minority population, harassment of civilians on the streets, checkpoints and arrests designed to intimidate, coercive interrogation in detention centers, threats and worse to lawyers, and collusion with Protestant paramilitaries. Not least was frequent use of disproportionate force. Prior to Black Lives Matter, the last time I had seen misnamed “rubber” bullets — they are actually larger, rock-hard plastic cylinders — was at a demonstration outside Belfast. As for killings, the RUC total was 56. For its part, the Army accounted for just under 300 “civilian,” or non-paramilitary, deaths.

For all their excesses, security forces in Northern Ireland were dealing with one challenge that no U.S. police force faces: paramilitaries from both sides engaged in campaigns of shootings and bombings that were, to a great extent, directed at the security forces themselves. Some 300 RUC officers and over 700 soldiers died in paramilitary attacks, a threat radically more clear and present than vague fears of “Antifa” activists. That said, absent more fundamental reforms, the massive, militarized security response proved utterly incapable of ending the Troubles, and in many ways perpetuated them.

Today, thanks to large-scale reforms, Northern Ireland is a substantially different place. Striking among the changes, the Army has ceased active operations in the region. And the RUC was nominally terminated and substantially altered. In its place now operates a renamed and reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

This transformation arose directly out of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a framework signed by the UK and Irish governments as well as Northern Ireland’s major and minor political parties. The story of the settlement is complex and well told by former Senator George Mitchell, who brokered the deal at the behest of President Bill Clinton. Suffice to say that it gave a long deferred and meaningful voice to the minority community, and it committed the authorities to reform and demilitarize law enforcement.

How that would come about was set forth in a lengthy report by an independent commission chaired by the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. The Patten Report offered over 175 recommendations for police reform, most of which were adopted by the newly inclusive Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. Even the barest summary of the principal headings provides a roadmap applicable beyond Northern Ireland’s borders:

  • Human Rights – Policing first and foremost should reflect a human rights-based approach, including training, appraisal, and code of conduct.
  • Accountability ­– The police must be subject to meaningful outside accountability mechanisms. Among these are a diverse and independent policing board, an ombudsperson, and a complaints panel with full investigatory powers.
  • Community Policing – Police should work with local communities, meet with community leaders, and tailor policing to local needs, and where feasible, patrol on foot.
  • Demilitarization – The use of military equipment should be reduced or eliminated, as should reliance on the army.
  • Handling Parades and Demonstrations – The use of “plastic bullets” should be reduced or eliminated. Individual police officers should be identifiable at all times.
  • Reduction of the Force – The size of the police force should be cut substantially, in part through early retirement incentives.
  • Diversity – The composition of the force needs to approximate the composition of the jurisdiction. New hiring should be done in proportion to the relevant groups in the community. Aggressive outreach measures should further be directed to members of minority populations.
  • Changing Police Culture – Any symbols showing disrespect to the minority community should be eliminated. Rigorous training to promote the foregoing goals should be implemented.

None of this is to say that policing in Northern Ireland today lacks problems or critics. But the PSNI is nonetheless widely regarded as a substantial step in the right direction. What resembles the old RUC far more are the armor-clad, too often violent and abusive, American police forces confronting the Black Lives Matter protests. Those seeking a hopeful model for change would do well to look to a land where change once seemed hopeless.

Images: LEFT – Members of the D.C. National Guard stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as demonstrators participate in a peaceful protest against police brutality and the death of George Floyd, on June 2, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images). RIGHT – British troops patrol the streets of Belfast June 21, 2001 following fierce fighting the previous night in Ardoyne, a mostly Catholic area in north Belfast, Northern Ireland. (Photo by Hugh Thomas/BWP Media via Getty Images)

 

About the Author(s)

Martin S. Flaherty

Martin S. Flaherty teaches at Princeton and Fordham Law School and is the author of "Restoring the Global Judiciary: Why the Supreme Court Should Rule in Foreign Affairs." Follow him on Twitter (@MFlaherty17).