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8 November 2001 Edition

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Different name, same bigots

RUC replaced by PSNI



BY FERN LANE


     
Racism does not magically disappear with a change of name or badge. Those officers who colluded in the killings of nationalists and republicans have not been suddenly transformed into determined upholders of human rights and seekers of justice
Sunday should have been a day of quiet celebration at the prospect of a new beginning. Except that it wasn't. Sunday should have seen the Royal Ulster Constabulary consigned to a particularly ignominious chapter of Irish history. Only it didn't. Instead, Sunday was the day when the British state thought it would be able to fob off the nationalist community in the Six Counties with the old force in new clothes. Only it can't.

Since its foundation on 1 June 1922, after the old Stormont parliament passed the Constabulary Act, the RUC has existed for the single purpose of protecting the Union. Nothing else. It was invested with extraordinary powers and sufficient weaponry by its unionist masters to enable it to carry out this function. And, to be fair to it, the RUC discharged its duties in this respect in an exemplary fashion. It has striven to protect the unionist community, by any means necessary, from the perceived threat of Irish nationalism, losing some 300 officers in the process. The function of protecting the entire community against crime was never part of the plan. It was considered entirely justifiable that Catholics in the Six Counties were to be denied a police force. They were, after all, the enemy.

Upon its foundation, the RUC became inextricably linked with the Orange Order. Shortly after the enactment of the 1922 Constabulary Act, in January 1923, an Orange Lodge, the Sir Robert Peel Memorial Loyal Orange Lodge was established, solely for RUC men. This intimate relationship is still virtually intact, one of the reasons why the RUC alone could not be trusted to police the Orange Order demonstrations at Portadown. And that intimacy is the reason why Harold Gracey publicly remonstrated with officers at the barricade to remember whose side they were supposed to be on.

For very many years, the state facilitated, actively encouraged even, the culture of sectarianism which seeped through every layer of the RUC by enacting laws which legitimised such attitudes and the consequent behaviour on the part of police officers. With the powers given to them by the state, added to a complete lack of accountability, it is not really surprising that so many officers lapsed into abuse ranging from harassment to murder. The combination of untrammelled power and rampant sectarianism is a potent mixture.

Chris Patten, hardly a radical and hardly sympathetic to the nationalist cause, was said to have been taken aback by the stories of the racism, violence, harassment, casual injustice and sheer ineffectiveness of the RUC which he heard from the nationalist community. He was equally shocked by the vociferous determination on the part of the unionist community to retain their police force intact as the last line of defence against the Irish.

As we all know, what he should have done was to recommend, without qualification, the disbandment of the force to enable policing in the Six Counties to begin again with a clean slate. What he did recommend was surely the absolute minimum requirement for any police force - a depoliticised, culturally neutral, ethnically representative, accountable service embedded in a culture of human rights. But this was too much for unionists, including those in the force, who insisted and continue to insist that the RUC's idolatrous attachment to symbols of British power is entirely reasonable. The arguments ran along the same lines as those are used to explain loyalist violence. Officers are said to be deeply demoralised and leaving the force in droves.

Demoralised by what, we may ask? By having to make some pretence of impartiality? By having to make some pretence of observing basic behavioural standards?

Those officers who find such a prospect demoralising have no place in any policing service anyway. Since Patten, we have been assailed by pitiful stories of police officers for whom giving up the name of the force, taking down the portrait of the Queen or the Union Jack has been too painful to bear. Can nationalists really be expected to place any faith in a 'new' policing service when such accounts are retold with sole objective of gaining sympathy?

Unionists, of course, have never managed to resolve this contradiction, nor have they tried. They have simply carried on in their determination to 'save' their beloved RUC, wilfully oblivious that in the very act of doing so they have shown the world exactly why it should go.

The British government, which knew all along that the RUC was corrupt, was also caught in a double bind of its own making. It had to pretend that the force was entirely honourable - or else begin to answer some very awkward questions about the state's own complicity in its crimes - whilst offering up minimal reform in the hope of buying off nationalists. This paradox was perfectly summed up by Tony Blair when he said on Sunday: "The bravery, dignity and resolve which police officers, their civilian colleagues and their families have displayed in the darkest of times are qualities which I firmly believe will endure into the PSNI". Whilst he understood that 4 November would be a "sad day" for the RUC, he said, "I hope, however, that it will also be seen as a proud day - a day both to reflect on the achievements of the past, and to look to a new beginning to policing."

The British government's solution to the problem of reforming something which was apparently already virtually perfect (just a small problem of not enough Catholics - which was the IRA's fault anyway) was to, as Brendan O'Learly so succinctly put it, eviscerate Patten. Sadly, the ploy worked. After a little tinkering, the SDLP obediently signed up to a force from which known previous human rights abusers will not be rooted out and punished. Serving officers do not have to make any commitment to observing human rights in future. Its officers are not banned from membership of the Orange Order or any other sectarian society, and systems of accountability have been watered down to the point where they have been rendered almost useless. And the new force can still deny employment to specified sections of the community.

Despite all the pious words from politicians about the new, reformed service, the depressing reality is that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is, in essence, the old RUC.

The officers who I watched hanging out of the back of an armoured Land Rover on the Falls Road, bellowing sectarian insults at women walking with their children at the head of the internment commemoration march, telling them that their names and addresses were already in the hands of the LVF; nor that officer I saw hit a small boy with the butt of his rifle because the child had dropped his bottle of Coke; nor those officers I saw at Portadown who did nothing as a member of an Orange band hit an observer around the head with a flagpole before casually rejoining the march and continuing, unmolested, on his way; nor those who smirked as their decent, law-abiding friends in the Order gained seemingly endless enjoyment from yelling "fuck the Virgin Mary" at worshippers coming and going from St John the Baptist Chapel - none of these officers woke up on Monday morning full of contrition at such behaviour.

Racism does not magically disappear with a change of name or badge. Those officers who colluded in the killings of nationalists and republicans, those who know exactly how the assassinations of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson were organised and those who rejoiced in their deaths, have not been suddenly transformed into determined upholders of human rights and seekers of justice. Three hundred new recruits, whatever their ethnic backgrounds, will not change eighty years of bigotry and bad practice.

 

Sinn Féin will not sit on flawed Policing Board




Sinn Féin spokesperson on Policing Gerry Kelly, speaking on Wednesday after the first meeting of the Policing Board said:

"Patten was clear, unambiguous and definitive about the role recommended for the Policing Board. The Patten Commission stated:

"We recommend that the statutory primary function of the Policing Board should be to hold the Chief Constable and the Police Service publicly to account."

"The British government's Police Act does not give the Board the power to do this. The sole responsibility for this and indeed for sorting this out lies with the British government.

"The Board which met today for the first time is not the Board set out in the Patten recommendations. It cannot hold the RUC Chief Constable and his force accountable.

The Board

Is subservient to the RUC Chief Constable and the British Secretary of State.

- Partisan political control continues;

Has no power to remove RUC human rights abusers from the new force;

Can be prevented by the RUC Chief Constable from removing human rights abusers from the force in the future;

Can be prevented by the RUC Chief Constable from exposing the involvement in human rights abuses by agents like Brian Nelson, William Stobie and others;

Cannot uncover the truth about shoot-to-kill, collusion and torture;

Cannot hold the Special Branch to account;

Cannot ban Plastic Bullets;

Cannot prevent the inherent abuses of human rights associated with the British government's repressive legislation.

"Sinn Féin has been very clear in our approach to this subject. We have worked tirelessly to see the Good Friday Agreement's new beginning to policing delivered. That is a police service, which is: accountable; free from partisan political control; representative of the community as a whole.

"The police force and the Policing Board fall short of the Patten requirements and the Good Friday Agreement requirements. In the past we refused to sit on the flawed Police Board or support a force, which remains flawed in significant and substantive ways.

"We will continue to work with the two governments and others to achieve the promise of the Good Friday Agreement. We signed up for a new beginning. We will accept nothing less. Our people deserve nothing less."

 

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An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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