Political policing - a new map for murky terrain

11 Mar 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 Mar 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

This week the Committee for the Administration of Justice launched a paper designed to inform people about the whys and wherefores of public order policing - useful for a factual approach to oversight of the PSNI. Scope takes a look.

The cry of “political policing” is a Northern Irish staple.

Sometimes it seems like an automatic, perhaps reflexive, accusation after the police deal with one group of people or another, a freebie for elected representatives and others to appeal to core supporters.

At the same time, it would be naïve to assume either that the PSNI gets everything right or that it is immune to the cocktail of pressures it finds itself under from many voluble and conflicting lobbies.

One of the great ironies is that accusations of political policing themselves politicise police decisions.

But what about the facts? An objective measurement of whether the police are getting things right and wrong (while it should also be noted that, should the PSNI make a mistake, it does not then follow that this is a deliberate piece of pandering on their part).

This week the Committee for the Administration of Justice (CAJ) released a booklet designed to set out in an accessible fashion the various competing factors the PSNI has to balance when making decisions about, specifically, public order policing.

How Public Order Policing Works in Northern Ireland - Standards and Accountability - February 2016 was launched on Thursday at Unison House on York Street.


Brian Gormally, Director of the CAJ, put the paper in context by saying: “We only have to look at the news every day to see people gathering on the streets to exercise their freedom to expression. It’s a very powerful tool that quite often puts fear into governments. It’s a major way for people to express their views but also their strength.

“The 5th October 1968 a day in our own history when what happened on the streets is often regarded as the first day of the Troubles, when an NI Civil Rights March in Duke Street was met by the RUC and the fallout from that arguably led to 30 years of violent political conflict. Just three years ago in December 2012 the flag protests seems to erupt from almost nothing and had a dramatic effect on the politics and security of this place.

“It’s also worth saying that protests about symbols and symbolic protests are also current in NI despite 18 years of a peace process. All this means that the confidence of policing public events and especially parades and protests is vital, not just in relation to specific events, but in general for the peace process. The charge that political policing is involved in public order events destroys trust in policing and in the rule of law in general.”

The basic idea

As the document itself says, the rules governing how and why police make decisions in public order situations are complicated – and it is to everyone’s benefit that stakeholders understand them better.

“This document attempts to give an account of the standards to which the Police Service of Northern Ireland aspires when carrying out public order policing and some of the issues that arise. These standards are to be found in domestic legislation, a series of police guidance documents and international human rights instruments, primarily the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The complexity created by the intersection of these various formulations of standards is perhaps one reason why the police sometimes find it difficult to explain exactly what a human rights based approach to public order policing entails and why the public may find it hard to understand.

“The project of working through the standards to create a coherent narrative is designed to identify decision points and the mechanisms through which the police are accountable for their decisions and actions.

“The hope is that any clarity achieved will reduce the scope for generalised accusations of political influence or bias and encourage critics to focus on the precise ways in which they think police decisions or actions were wrong. This should improve accountability both in identifying clearly where and how the police get things wrong and also a clear defence and rationale for decisions and actions which are right, albeit unpopular.”

Will it work?

Scope put it to Mr Gormally, who launched the paper alongside Patricia McKeown, Regional Secretary of Unison, that while the CAJ publication is potentially of great use to those with honest intentions, others who cheaply throw around accusations will not necessarily make use of it because facts are less important than a manipulation of perceptions.

He agreed that there are people who have their own agenda, but added that this paper provides to tools to push back against those situations. “The question is how something like this would change that. I wouldn’t necessarily say it will change everything but I do think the benefit of this is that people can be pressed on those claims.

“If someone says, ‘It’s political policing’… then ask them ‘Where have they [the PSNI] got it wrong, in this document? What are you claiming, what specific decision have they made that’s wrong?’

“The reason we did this is because PSNI said their public order is based on Human Rights standards and tests and we thought we could see that, up to a point, but wondered where it was written down. It’s complicated, so this is an attempt, a summary that is at least user friendly and accessible information.”

Ms McKeown reinforced the point that it can also be used to properly identify police breaches as well and, fundamentally, the document aims to assist correct assessments – whatever the outcome.

“[It also works] when it is, or might be, political policing. This document can work both ways, people can at least look at it from ways and put together better arguments [about what the police have got wrong and got right].”

The police view

Various politicians and representatives from a variety of the marching orders were invited to attend the launch of this paper. Scope did not see any of them there.

However, there were some PSNI officers, including Chief Superintendent Chris Noble, Commander in charge of Belfast City District Command Unit, who offered a degree of qualified praise for the paper, and certainly praised its intentions.

A certain weariness and wariness should be expected from the police in this area. Public disorder is an ingrained part of Northern Ireland’s political expression at this stage and – whether they get things right or wrong – the police have a difficult job balancing a complex system rights while, inevitably, having to literally and figuratively don their hard hats when taking to the streets.

He said accountability and structures are “hugely important” and that the document is a good starting point for people to better understand the rationale behind decisions – but warned that if he took it to various community groups they will still have their own ideas of what represents “proportionality”, an area he said is “very subjective”.

“This won’t solve all our problems and provide answers, but it’s a starting point. However, if it was easy we wouldn’t have human rights lawyers.”

No, it won’t solve all our problems – but the CAJ has provided an incredibly useful service, should people wish to use it, and that itself represents progress.

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