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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


Policing Northern Ireland: Proposals for a New Start
John McGarry & Brendan O’Leary

(Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1999)
146pp. Index. Pb. 9.99; ISBN 0-85640-648-1



The nature of policing is inevitably a crucial political issue in areas of national or ethnic conflict. As part of the Good Friday Agreement, the document central to the peace process in Northern Ireland, an independent commission, chaired by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten, was set up to 'bring forward proposals for future policing structures and arrangements'. In Policing Northern Ireland McGarry and O'Leary offer Patten a range of recommendations whilst attempting to remain consistent to the terms of reference set for the Commission and the letter and spirit of the Good Friday Agreement (p.4).

McGarry and O'Leary review policing in Northern Ireland and most particularly why the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), in its present form, has little legitimacy amongst Irish nationalists. The minority, Catholic, community are underrepresented in the RUC, they make up 43% of the population of Northern Ireland an only 7.5% of total RUC personnel (p.45). McGarry and O'Leary point out that many of those Catholics in the RUC probably have a unionist rather than Irish nationalist political outlook (Ch.3). The police are perceived by most nationalists not to be impartial because of their history as defenders of the British state, their close relationship with Unionist governments from 1922 to 1972, and their role in policing the 'troubles'. Their relationship with unionism is also reflected in their name, the 'Royal' Ulster Constabulary, many of their associated symbols and the flying of the Union flag at police stations (Ch.4). This has led most republicans to demand disbandment of the RUC, all nationalists to call for major reform, but most unionists accepting only minimal changes based on moving to peace (Ch.1).

McGarry and O'Leary's recommendations are in many ways radical but in some aspects disappointingly mainstream. They suggest a range of measures to increase recruitment of nationalists whilst downsizing the force along with 'civilianisation' of training and the development of an impartial working environment. They recommend a range of re-structuring option leading to a form of two-tier policing (Ch.5) with accountability through local elected bodies and an elected Northern Ireland Police Committee (Ch.6).

The book offers a good overview of the debate and some, and maybe many, of their recommendations should appear in the Patten report leading to a police service quite different to the RUC. Yet, there is little in the way of lateral thinking. There is little said about partnership or multi-agency approaches to problems. Aside from accountability there is no discussion about how communities can be resourced and empowered to deal with policing issues. The underline assumption is that policing problems are dealt with by reforming the institution of the police. I hope that the Patten Commission interpret their terms of reference in a broader way than McGarry and O'Leary.


Dominic Bryan
Democratic Dialogue, Belfast




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