November 30, 1999
Sinn Fein Interim Response
to the report of the
Independent Commission on Policing
Policing is one of the most important issues that lie at the heart of conflict resolution. To ensure the success of the Good Friday Agreement, it is crucial that a proper, democratically accountable police service be established that measures up to international human rights standards. This is a touchstone issue for nationalists and republicans.
Sinn Fein has called for the RUC to be disbanded. In common with the other participants to the Good Friday Agreement we believe that a police service should be one that is professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial. It must also be free from partisan political control; accountable, both under the law for its actions and to the community it serves; representative of the society it polices, and operates within a coherent and co-operative criminal justice system, which conforms with human rights norms.
RUC practices have been challenged and criticised internationally, by, among others,
- The United Nations Human Rights Committee
- The United Nations Committee Against Torture
- Amnesty International
- The European Court of Human Rights
- The UN Special Reporter Dato Param Cumaraswamy
- The International Relations Committee of the US Congress
- The European Parliament.
In essence the RUC has been an integral part of a failed political dispensation.
For young people in nationalist areas, policing has become synonymous with sectarianism, repression, and with all-invasive surveillance of our everyday lives, with harassment and brutality meted out with total impunity, with daily humiliation at the hands of an armed force that has shown total contempt for the political and religious beliefs of the people in this community.
Yet in spite of the myriad negative experiences at the hands of the RUC, nationalists and republicans still want a policing service. Our community is implacably opposed to the RUC, but is not anti-police per se. Nationalists and republicans, like all sections of society, want and deserve a policing service we can trust and respect, and one which we can feel confident of joining, or of recommending to others as a possible career option. In the Good Friday Agreement we were promised a `new beginning' to policing. Our task at present is to assess whether or not this report and its implementation hold the potential to create that new beginning.
Sinn Fein has been actively involved in the discussions relating to the future of policing in Ireland. We were heavily involved in negotiating those sections of the Good Friday Agreement which related to policing. We compiled a detailed and exhaustive submission to the Patten Commission. Representatives held meetings with commission members to expand and clarify aspects of our thinking. We have held consultations on the report with a view to measuring the recommendations in the report against our own proposals contained in the submission. Finally, we have also supported and encouraged developments in community policing at grass roots level through restorative justice projects.
The combination of policy debate and practical engagement is the background to our consideration of the Patten recommendations.
Of course, Sinn Fein have perhaps presented the most far-reaching critique of the RUC. It is members of the nationalist community who have overwhelmingly suffered ill-treatment in detention centres, had family members or neighbours killed in disputed circumstances, experience streets and homes sealed off and attacked in dawn raids, and witnessed children harassed, injured and killed by the RUC. This informs the demand for a new beginning to policing, so that we can all put behind us the failures of the past. The RUC is clearly one of those.
2. General Comments
Overall, Sinn Fein is not convinced at present that the Patten report goes far enough in addressing this failed legacy, and we are therefore unable, at present, to take up the call to encourage people from nationalist and republican communities to join any emerging police service. Sinn Fein intends therefore to assess the recommendations in the Patten Report and to look carefully at British government legislation and proposals following this period of consultation before reaching a final conclusion.
We recognise there are many good things in the report. Indeed, if we were starting from scratch, the report recommendations on human rights culture and community policing would be a positive template from which to start.
However, it is the transitional aspects of the report, which causes most concern. In particular the length of time involved in reaching some minimal sense of representativeness is too long. The chart on page 79 of the Patten Report makes depressing reading for nationalists. In addition there are no reassurances concerning those currently in the RUC who have no place in a proper policing service. The report itself says that the proverbial bad apples need to be removed. Yet there is no mechanism proposed for removing them.
There is no mandatory redundancy provision to remove senior ranks and create space for lateral entry from other services. Thus the senior officers, who have presided over curfew in nationalist areas, brutal RUC public order tactics, the emergency law regimes and set-piece ambushes using lethal force will all be able to stay in position. They will also be able to authorise the use of plastic bullets, a weapon which has been condemned at UN level. Plastic bullets have also been used in a highly sectarian fashion.
This is all unsatisfactory. It is well known that the pervading culture of large and closed institutions is tremendously resistant to change. This would be doubly so in this case. If the impetus to transformation is not built in to start at the earliest possible date, the potential for change will become less as time goes by.
This interim response will analyse the report in some detail, and in particular against some specific issues raised in Sinn Fein's submission to the Commission. However, it is the British government's formal response and whether they have the political will to create an acceptable policing service that dictates our overall conclusions.
3. Republican objectives
Republicans seek an all-Ireland policing service and, in the interim, the creation of a police service in the six counties that can attract widespread support from and is seen as an integral part of the community as a whole.
As well as the above, Sinn Fein expectations can be summarised under the following:
- Effective accountability;
- Effective arrangements for community input into local policing;
- An end to politico/military policing in terms of emergency law, use of plastic bullets and so on;
- Increased harmonisation with the South;
- Civilianisation of policing in terms of training and other functions;
- Radical overhaul of the ethos of policing in terms of aggression and Constitutional symbolism;
- Screening process to root out those current RUC personnel involved in human rights abuses;
- Representativeness in terms of, political opinion, religion, gender and ethnic minorities.
The number and range of changes in the above list must therefore be set against the bold statement that the RUC will not be disbanded but it will be renamed the Northern Ireland Police Service.
4. Comments on the various elements listed above
4.1 Effective accountability
There are a string of recommendations aimed at challenging the present culture of impunity. Much will depend on who implements those proposals.
Overall the various aspects of accountability have potential as follows:
The new central policing Board and the local District Partnership boards aim to strike some form of balance between democratic oversight and independent policing (free from partisan control). The powers of the local boards will be very important and should not be circumscribed in legislation. Sinn Fein welcomes the proposal that the local boards have the capacity to buy in services. The type of services should not be circumscribed unduly in legislation.
The new definition of operational responsibility of the Chief Constable is a good contribution to resolving the difficulties with operational independence as it has functioned in the six counties. This should be defined in law.
The report is explicit that there is no aspect of police operations (beyond ``national security'' issues and even these can be contested) which the Chief Constable cannot be asked to account for after the event. This is a significant change, which can be used positively. However, there is no reason why a police head should not be asked to consult with the main Police Board on possible controversial decisions in advance. There is also scope for the Board to initiate inquiries or invite others to conduct investigations. Sinn Fein proposes that there should be a statutory requirement on anyone involved in policing to give full discovery of all documentation to and to co-operate fully with investigations by the Human Rights Commission.
Our concerns about the model of accountability are as follows:
The emphasis should not be on the police determining their relationship with the community, but rather on an equal partnership approach. Anything less would fly in the face of much of the report's rhetoric about community policing.
The powers to sanction a local commander or head of police who doesn't co-operate need to be made explicit in legislation.
Finally, in terms of complaints mechanisms we support the Commission's strong support for the new complaints Ombudsman. We also note the re-statement of support for the recommendations made by Dr Maurice Hayes in his 1997 report. However, the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998 does not implement the Hayes report, and steps need to be taken to rectify this in terms of the legislation currently proposed by the British Government.
The Commission has failed to suggest anything be done about the cases that the current complaints systems had failed to deal with (see below on screening). The only recommendation relating to this is that the Ombudsman will have access to all former reports on the RUC (including Stalker and Stevens). The Commission also calls for adequate resourcing or the new ombudsoffice. It remains to be seen whether sufficient resources will be made available. It is not appropriate that members of the police service would be seconded to the new complaints system as investigators into complaints of police behaviour. This is indicative of the dangers that all the positive aspects of reports could be undermined by a lack of political will to produce wholehearted change.
4.2 Effective arrangements for community input into local policing
The statement that ``policing with the community should be the core function of the police service and the core function of every police station'' (paragraph7.9) is an important development in policing in the six counties. This would have implications for a whole array of structural, management and training issues. Sinn Fein welcomes this positive statement as well as the emphasis later in the section on problem solving and dealing with causes of crime rather than simply responses to it. It could signal a new beginning if we were certain that we were, in fact, to have a proper, democratically accountable police service. The question is whether the mechanisms are there to make it more than just words. It is clear that the Patten Commission wants more real community input. We remain to be convinced that their proposals are enough to achieve this given the major flaw concerning the absence of screening to weed out those RUC officers whose actions to date suggest that they will block proposed changes.
The DPPBs can discuss and advise local commanders but the major policing budget will be in her/his hands to be spent in agreement with NIPS HQ. There is no requirement for agreement with the DPPB. On the other hand, the premium in the report as a whole is on consensus, collaboration and partnership. The DPPB can refer problems up to the to the central Policing Board and the annual appraisal will look at whether or not the local commander has been effective in working with the local board.
This approach will depend on the training of officers to inculcate openness to community partnership on the part of the police. The approach also depends on whether sufficient numbers of new officers and recruits are willing to move into the new dispensation. For reasons outlined elsewhere in this paper, none of this is guaranteed.
In relation to the DPPBs, for these to be different from the present Community Police Liaison Committees - apart of course from the capacity to buy in services - the makeup will be key. The new bodies will only be different from the CPLCs - which were basically an RUC public relations exercise - if nationalist and republican political and community representatives feel it is possible for them to contribute effectively. The powers of the DPPBs and mechanisms of appeal to the main board will prove important in this respect, as will the nature of the police service itself.
It is unfortunate that the Patten Commission made no comments regarding community restorative justice projects. These have a vital role in assisting local communities to regulate themselves. The failure to consider their contribution to new policing arrangements is a missed opportunity to have this important topic dealt with by an independent commission.
4.3 An end to politico/military policing
The greatest weakness of the report relates to emergency law, use of plastic bullets, reliance on informers, and a routinely unarmed service. The refusal to move on these issues is of major concern and will make it more difficult for nationalists to give their support. This approach runs directly counter to the idea of an accountable service based on a human rights approach. The RUC Chief Constable has already used the existence of small dissident groups to insist that change cannot happen in relation to these issues. Sinn Fein is convinced that RUC personnel and recalcitrant civil servants will continue to try and limit change.
The decision not to recommend disarmament weakens the rest of the report. It is hard to understand how it will be possible for officers who are routinely armed to adopt the positive approach to community partnership outlined above. It is something which will make it far more difficult for people in the nationalist community to approach police officers in a problem solving partnership.
We of course welcome the further call from the Patten Commission for the closure of Castlereagh and other detention centres. In relation to other matters, it remains to be seen whether they are dealt with in the context of the British government's plan for demilitarisation O a report which is now one year overdue. Sinn Fein will have to also consider the scope of plans for demilitarisation before we are able to comprehensively judge the prospect for policing transformation.
Finally, as stated earlier, the report did not call for the Stalker and Stevens reports to be published even though they are to be made available to the new complaints body. This will make it harder, though not impossible, to remove some of those involved at the time and now in senior positions.
4.4 The capacity for increased harmonisation with the South.
As we stated in our submission to the Patten commission we see this as a positive development only in the context of a new beginning to policing.
The proposals in the Patten report are useful and pragmatic insofar as they go should a new beginning be achieved. Sinn Fein however, believes that the commission missed an opportunity to enhance accountability by not proposing all-island civilian oversight. We should like to see co-operation developed in this area through contact between the Policing Board and any equivalent in the 26 counties.
In this context, secondments from the Garda'' could have a useful role. We will wish to see the detail in terms of the number and ranks at which these would be facilitated.
4.5 Civilianisation of policing in terms of philosophy and training.
The resistance to change of ethos in large institutions and particularly in police forces should not be underestimated. It will take political will and strong direction from the senior ranks to make this radical shift from the past. Canteen culture is difficult to break down. Much depends on whether or not officers with unreconstructed attitudes are accommodated. It is very difficult to estimate whether the road of evolutionary but rapid change mapped out by the Commission will in fact make the required break. A concerted push to bring in people at senior levels from other forces and non-policing organisations will be central to this. Success will depend on the rapid achievement of a critical mass in the overall number of new people. Crucially, there needs to be sufficient new people at senior levels to force others to adopt, not resist, the planned new approach.
The report speaks of a critical mass for change (about 15%) being reached in the third year of implementation. In Sinn Fein's view this is unlikely to happen without a mechanism to remove those former RUC officers who resist change or who have been involved in human rights abuses in the past. We believe that the forces opposed to change will organise to block progress through non co-operation. It is therefore highly unlikely that nationalists or republicans will wish to join a service that contains members, including at very senior levels, those who have been responsible for carrying out or covering up well-documented human rights violations.
This is particularly important in relation to the proposal that the focus on community policing will be assessed annually in terms of appraisal and other management supervisory functions. This will have more chance of success if there are sufficient new personnel at management level.
The report does not specify that training will be independent. Rather there will be independent input into it with courses bring run independently. It is particularly unfortunate that the RUC is already making plans about future training with the University of Ulster. This gives the sense that -from the Chief Constable's point of view - he can carry on his own plans irrespective of the results of the major report of the Patten Commission.
4.6 Radical overhaul of the ethos of policing in terms of aggression and constitutional identification.
On a more positive note, as indicated above, the Patten Commission has been at pains to try and break the connection between policing and the defence of the state. In this context, the symbol changes are important. Sinn Fein is concerned that the British government may undo much that is good in the report by reneging on symbols in response to unionist demands.
Ensuring that the Irish language community can carry out their dealings with the police in their own language could also signal a break from the past. It is important that those involved in recruitment, training and assessment for promotion should be mindful of the promises in the Good Friday Agreement in this respect.
The report makes clear that the ethos of the new service should be such that republicans feel they can join. Similarly the report indicates that there should be balance in terms of both religious and political opinion.
While the rhetoric of the report is positive in terms of moving away from reactive and aggressive policing the opportunities to signify this in concrete terms by recommending disarming, an end to emergency law and the banning of plastic bullets have not been seized. Bringing in new people, emphasising community policing, partnership and problem solving are positive. However it takes one incident of firing of plastic bullets or inappropriate riot control to create a major setback. In this sense, use of plastic bullets, armed patrolling and emergency legislation should be a thing of the past.
We are also concerned that the status of special branch and of those officers currently involved is unclear.
4.7 Representation in terms of religion, political opinion, gender and ethnic minorities.
Achieving 30% catholic representation in 10 years is not an adequate target. In Sinn Fein's view even this may not be achieved because there is no guarantee that there will be space for new people coming in. The whole process is voluntary. The report states that compulsory redundancy is illegal. However they propose a change in the law to ensure that recruitment takes place on a 50/50 basis between Catholics and Protestants.
Significantly, it is the main not the reserve section of any police service which is of importance in this respect.
On the other hand the whole tone of the report makes clear that the commission is looking for significant numbers of voluntary redundancies. Perhaps the most remarkable recommendation is the fact that officers with a mere five years service should be eligible for generous packages. This is an extraordinary statement of what the Commission feels about the quality of RUC officers in whom a considerable investment has been made. It accords with Sinn Fein's view of the quality of many of the officers and much of the training to date.
Any policing service should be representative of the community it serves at all levels. The Patten commission has said that they wish to see the proportion of Catholics in the senior ranks at least doubled in as short a time as possible. They specifically recommend that the recruitment agency should identify Catholic officers from here serving in police services elsewhere. They make no similar recommendation in terms of political opinion, gender, ethnic minorities, sexual orientation or disability, but do state their belief that any police service can benefit from the infusion of diverse talent, and recommend lateral entry of experienced officers from other services regardless of religion.
However, they make no suggestions as to how to make space for such appointments to occur. We believe that all positions, but particularly those at senior level should be openly advertised. Those currently holding these positions should be open to apply, while keeping in mind the recommendations elsewhere in the report about accountability, community policing, and human rights based approach.
It is unfortunate that the commission refused to make more specific recommendations which would increase the numbers of women and minority groups overall. Sinn Fein will wish to assess the shape and implementation of flexible working arrangements which the Commission considers will allow more women in particular to join and to remain within any new policing service.
4.8 A screening process to root out those current RUC personnel involved in human rights abuses.
We deeply regret the fact that the Commission firmly set its sights against passing any judgement on the RUC's past record or providing any mechanism for dealing with individual abusive officers. The commissioners state that bad apples should be dealt with but provide no means of ensuring that this is done.
Sinn Fein is also disappointed that the Commission has failed to create a level playing filed in terms of recruitment to the new service. Rather discrimination is operated as between state and republican combatants. The Commissioners decided in a principled way to opt for a restorative rather than a retributive approach feeling that a new start was needed. They therefore felt that they did no