12 February 2009 Edition
POLICING : Six-County policing seminar in Belfast
Challenging bad policing, supporting good policing
BY LAURA FRIEL
SINN FÉIN’S engagement with the PSNI is about challenging bad policing and supporting good policing, Bronwyn McGahan has told a Six-County-wide weekend seminar on policing.
McGahan has been tasked with co-ordinating Sinn Féin’s intervention in policing and justice issues, both North and South
“Sinn Féin’s primary objective is to end partition and build a united Ireland and it is within this context that we must view policing and justice issues,” she said.
Describing policing and justice as “only one site of struggle”, McGahan outlined Sinn Féin’s current objectives in the Six Counties as securing democratic accountability, achieving a representative force, ending partisan political control, dealing with the issue of collusion, and ensuring the delivery of a civic policing service on the ground.
McGahan identified the mechanisms currently available to Sinn Féin to deliver these objectives:–
• Direct engagement with the PSNI at all levels;
• District Policing Partnerships;
• The Policing Board;
• The Police Ombudsman.
Above all else, she told the seminar, this is about delivering good policing in the community. Engagement with the community is critical. Effective policing means partnership between the community and the police. Partnership requires agreement, consent and confidence. There cannot be and there will not be conscripts to this process.
“We’ve travelled a long journey since passing our Ard Fheis motion on policing in 2007 and the strategies we adopted have already had some success in moving us closer to achieving our objectives,” Bronwyn said.
“Amongst our objectives is the creation and delivery of effective frontline policing services across the island in respect of important issues such as drugs. This clearly requires all-Ireland approaches including structures and strategies”, she said.
Representatives, many members of District Policing Partnerships, from across the Six Counties had travelled to west Belfast to attend the weekend seminar.
Sinn Féin MLA Alex Maskey reminded everyone that, while this seminar was focusing on the Six Counties, policing and justice issues were an island-wide project. Alex is the leader of the Sinn Féin group on the Policing Board.
Describing Sinn Féin’s critical engagement with policing as “a major embarkation” that is “already involving a significant number of our activists”, Alex pointed out that while some people have embraced the project, others have been sceptical. “We need to be mindful of all of that,” he said.
“This is a big project, the task is onerous, the challenge is mighty and the responsibility is considerable. But we shouldn’t see this as a burden but as an important opportunity. It’s essential for us to get in there and begin to shape policing and justice on this island within the context of our own political objectives and historic struggle,” the Belfast MLA said.
“We also know that when we take away all the politics of policing and justice, the issue of community safety remains key to ourselves, communities and the primarily working-class communities, up and down the country, that we directly represent.
“And we do have a responsibility to work with those communities. Indeed, republicans have always worked with communities to tackle criminal and anti-social behaviour but we always understood the limitations a partisan and hostile RUC brought to all of that.
“Anyway, coming out of all that community-based experience, and through a process of educating ourselves about the wider debate, Sinn Féin has emerged with probably some of the most progressive policies around policing and justice on the island of Ireland.
Sinn Féin is already working towards a convergence between the party’s policies and strategies, North and South. “This will allow the emergence of an all-Ireland charter on policing and justice issues,” Alex Maskey said.
He added that, in the 26 Counties, district policing partnerships have fewer statutory powers and tend to be paternalistic.
As an MLA, Alex Maskey is one of three elected Sinn Féin members representing the party on the Policing Board. Martina Anderson and Daithí McKay are Sinn Féin’s other Policing Board members, while
Gearóid Ó hEara, a former Sinn Féin councillor, sits on the board as an Independent.
“The Policing Board is made up of 19 members. Some of those are representatives from the various political parties and others are there as Independents,” he explained.
“Some of the Independents would be republicans and others card-carrying members of the DUP and so on.”
The Policing Board and other mechanisms of accountability (the District Policing Partnerships and Police Ombudsman) arose as a consequence of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). But there are those who would prefer to limit the role of the Policing Board and roll back the wider political and social context within which the GFA placed policing and justice issues, Alex argued.
The GFA provides a significant point of reference and, as members of Sinn Féin, one of our functions is to “stretch out” the statutory remit of the Policing Board in line with the transforming potential of the GFA, said Alex.
Addressing the seminar, Gearóid Ó hEara pointed out that one means of building political strength was through effective representation and that can be done in the councils, as MLAs, and also in terms of delivering accountable and progressive policing.
“To do that we need to understand all aspects of the whole policing operation. In the past, we might have come up against some aspects of that operation but this is a whole new ball game.”
Gearóid argued that to initiate change within state institutions and bodies, whether local government, Education and Library Boards, or in relation to policing and justice, we need to develop the kind of operational understanding that can only be gained by getting involved.
“We need to understand their structures, how they organise themselves, how they operate, the internal politics between them all, how they manage budgets – and to understand all of that you need to get involved in it.”
SET THE AGENDA
Commenting on the role of Sinn Féin members on the Policing Board and District Policing Partnerships (DPPs), Gearóid said members were expected to attend meetings, read their paperwork and develop their own initiatives. Gearóid urged DPP members to be proactive in setting the agenda.
DPP members need to consult their communities to develop a local policing plan to meet their community’s needs. Ó hEara pointed out that DPP members also have an advocacy role, raising local grievances and seeking resolutions and redress.
The initial hostility encountered by Sinn Féin when engaging with other state institutions led to the development of strategies to neutralise opposition and overcome resistance to change.
These strategies, of building alliances and ensuring statutory compliance, can also be utilised within the Policing Board, District Policing Partnerships and in developing working relationships with the PSNI, said Gearóid.
A report into the operation of the Policing Board prior to Sinn Féin’s entry into the process criticised the previous board for becoming ‘friends’ to the PSNI, said Gearóid. The presence of Sinn Féin ensures the Policing Board operates as an accountability mechanism and a partner for good policing.
Discussing the difficulty for republicans of transcending their historic relationship with the RUC, Gearóid Ó hEara stressed the importance of a professional approach.
“The key to holding the PSNI to account is approaching it in a professional manner. We have to develop a very cordial, professional approach,” he said.
Two key objectives are depoliticising the police and policing and creating an efficient service.
“The RUC were put together to sustain inequalities, maintain privileges for one section of the community and, towards these ends, to suppress opposition to this unacceptable state of affairs,” Gearóid Ó hEara said.
“The way in which they were structured, their geographical areas, the location of barracks, the way in which their resources were eschewed, as well as their ethos, have all been determined by this.
“And now the PSNI – including former RUC personnel – are required to turn their world upside down. That level of change is genuinely difficult for many of them. Many of those unable to embrace change have either already left or are looking to leave.”
Those who have decided to remain in the PSNI are already experiencing the beginnings of a whole cultural sea-change. Mechanisms of accountability are up and functioning and old patterns of discrimination and bad practice are being challenged.
“Behind the smokescreen of fighting republicans, the RUC got away with incredibly sloppy policing, both in terms of the delivery of a policing service and in relation to their own discipline.
“Minor offences committed by policemen, such as speeding or parking illegally, even off-duty and when driving private vehicles, routinely remained unsanctioned and ignored. Sometimes even family members were given a similar licence to break the law. All of that is now beginning to be addressed.”
As a result of effective intervention, even the attitude towards internal discipline is changing within the PSNI itself.
Police officers are increasingly unwilling to ignore misdemeanours amongst their own colleagues. The message is out there: if you value keeping your job, sloppy policing is no longer an option, explained Gearóid.
“Not only is sloppy policing being challenged, those found wanting are increasingly facing punitive measures. The number of disciplinary hearings carried out by the PSNI last year was greater than the number carried out by most other European police forces.
“And the level of sanction likely to be imposed was also greater. A recent directive warned that any PSNI officers caught drink-driving can expect to have to resign. There is clearly a changing ethos within the PSNI.”
However, the PSNI are still attempting to hide poor policing by blaming their failures on a lack of funding.
Gearóid Ó hEara highlighted the fact that some of the PSNI’s funding is still caught up in servicing the RUC’s old counter-insurgency structures.
The estates, lands and buildings owned by the PSNI far exceed their current requirements but there is an unwillingness to sell them off.
Armoured vehicles are expensive to run and maintain but the PSNI are reluctant to exchange them for normal police vehicles. Buildings and vehicles have to be demilitarised. Patten requires this. Community partnership requires that these be community-friendly, user-friendly.
Financial resources are further wasted in the current ranking system within the PSNI. For example, there is one sergeant for every six constables. This inflates the wages bill but it is yet to be reformed.
Gearóid Ó hEara said:
“There is no reason why all of this can’t be addressed and the money secured diverted into creating the kind of first-class civic policing service our people deserve.”
In a presentation scrutinising the work of the Police Ombudsman, legal advisor Patrick Murray argued for a restorative justice approach to resolving those complaints against the PSNI which are unlikely to result in a criminal charge or disciplinary measures.
After a complaint has been lodged, the Ombudsman will decide whether to pursue a formal investigation, recommend informal resolution or close the complaint.
Because of the legalistic and evidential nature of formal complaints, the vast majority are deemed unsubstantiated and the complaint isn’t upheld.
Informal resolutions of complaints, where the applicant has grounds to feel aggrieved but does not want to pursue a specific allegation, can be equally unsatisfactory. The complaint is dealt with by an appointed Resolution Officer who establishes the nature of the complaint and seeks a response from the officer concerned.
But there is no requirement to mediate between the officer and the person who feels aggrieved.
Patrick argued that a restorative justice approach where the police officer and the complainant would seek resolution face-to-face would provide a more satisfactory mechanism.
“In 2001, the Police Complaints Authority urged the British Government to establish restorative justice as the focal point of informal resolutions. In their report, the PCA pointed out that such an approach in which ‘both the complainant and officer are involved in seeking a solution’ it is ‘more likely to produce results in terms of changed behaviour’ of the officer,” said Patrick.
“The Police Ombudsman is currently carrying out a pilot scheme in north and west Belfast. The scheme began in September 2008 and will run until February 2009.”
Outlining the process envisaged, Patrick said suitable complaints would be passed to the Ombudsman’s Mediation Unit, who would contact both parties. If they both consent to the process, a face-to-face meeting would take place and if there is no resolution the matter would be subject to a formal investigation.
“The Ombudsman has raised the possibility of ‘shuttle mediation’ but this should be opposed strongly as it undermines the integrity of the process,” said Patrick.
“A mediation approach provides the police and community with a creative and collaborative way to examine other methods of problem solving. The process is also overseen by an independent mediator rather than a member of the PSNI. This allows for greater independence within the process of resolution.
“Sinn Féin has welcomed the use of a restorative approach to deal with ‘less serious’ complaints as an alternative to the current informal resolution process. If the Ombudsman’s pilot scheme is successful it may be used to push the NIO for the legislative change required to promote mediation as a permanent alternative to informal resolution of police complaints.”
2007: The Sinn Féin Extraordinary Ard Fheis on Policing