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Police Reform in Northern Ireland: Achievements and Future Challenges

Police officer stands guard at a police cordon point while army ATO defuse a bomb in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Police officer stands guard at a police cordon point while army ATO defuse a bomb in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Policing played a central role in the long sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. A key objective of the peace process was a fundamental transformation of the relationship of the police to society, with the aim of achieving ‘a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole’. As a result, Northern Ireland’s police reform is often held up as a model for other societies emerging from conflict. 

Yet, the new police service has also been challenged by persistent inter-communal tensions and divisions, and low-intensity but continuing violence in a wider context of political paralysis. While no one in the political mainstream advocates a return to violence, many fear that renewed attacks by paramilitaries will be a consequence of the ongoing disorder and societal divisions caused by the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (EU)—‘Brexit’. Indeed, the leader of the paramilitary Real Irish Republican Army (New IRA) recently declared that any post-Brexit border infrastructure would be ‘a legitimate target for attack’. It is thus timely to briefly review the evolution and state of the peace process in Northern Ireland today through the lens of policing. 


Policing from the Troubles to the post-Good Friday Agreement period

Between 1969 and 1998, the sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, known as ‘the Troubles’, resulted in nearly 3500 deaths. While instigated by the demands of and reactions to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the roots of the conflict lay in the 1921 partition of the island of Ireland into two polities: an independent Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland, which remained in the UK albeit with a degree of self-government. This resulted in a struggle between the mostly Protestant Unionists, who supported a continued connection with the UK and who dominated the local government, and the mostly Catholic Nationalists, who advocated a united Ireland. Republican paramilitaries, such as the Provisional IRA, resorted to violence in support of the latter goal, and they in turn were countered by Loyalist paramilitaries. 

After years of efforts to find a political solution to the conflict, a major step towards peace was made on 10 April 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), also known as the Belfast Agreement, was reached. The path forward has been complex and difficult: the deadly Omagh bombing by the Real IRA, a dissident Republican group, occurred only three months later; disagreement dogged the process to decommission weapons held by paramilitary groups; a subsequent agreement was necessary to resolve outstanding problems on devolution; and low-level violence has persisted in summer marching season attacks and intra-communal vigilantism. Nevertheless, the GFA is generally acknowledged as the bedrock of political agreement that has enabled the building of a generally sustained, if imperfect, peace including a marked decline in turmoil and sectarian violence.

The importance of police in peace processes

Establishment of an effective and legitimate police service is fundamental to the resolution of conflict in deeply divided societies such as Northern Ireland. The police are acknowledged to be the most visible manifestation of state authority, by virtue of their regular day-to-day interaction with members of the public and their control over the legitimate use of force in their actions to serve the well-being of individuals and communities. Whose security the police serve and which laws they enforce in a society are profoundly political and symbolic questions. 

In deeply divided societies where inter-communal violence has taken place, the role of the police is one of the most difficult questions to resolve during a peace process. In states with continuing inter-communal tensions, such as Northern Ireland, police must confront the challenge of not being perceived as neutral or impartial actors by all parties. The legitimacy of the police in the eyes of those being policed is linked to the political legitimacy of the state, and in Northern Ireland, the role of the police has been the most contentious aspect of efforts to build peace.

Militarized policing

In response to the riots and sectarian violence that had broken out in the summer of 1969 at the start of the Troubles, and at the request of the Unionist government, the British Army was tasked with maintaining order in support of the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). The RUC had a predominantly Protestant personnel. In some areas, it had become a militarized force with a counterinsurgency mission, which was mainly operated by its specialized military wing, the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), also known as the B Specials. This led to more alienation of affected Nationalist communities, who accused the USC of human rights abuses. It was abolished in 1970, and replaced by the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR), a British Army regiment that became responsible for protecting the border. Despite initially aspiring to a more balanced composition, Catholics were severely under-represented and the UDR never gained the trust of Catholic communities, which viewed it as colluding with Loyalist paramilitaries in attacks on Catholic civilians. 

Multidimensional reform

Thus, police reform has required efforts on several levels. As well as achieving consensus on political, legal and organizational reforms, it also required changes in perceptions of how the police have conducted their operational missions—policing communities under the core principles of effectiveness, neutrality, inclusion and accountability while securing legitimacy in the eyes of the community as a whole. Despite Unionist resentment, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), which replaced the RUC, has sought to strengthen its legitimacy and repair its relationship with the Catholic–Nationalist–Republican communities that had accused the RUC of human rights abuses


Legal–political agreements on police reform


The Good Friday Agreement

A series of legal–political agreements paved the path to police reform in the Northern Ireland peace process, based on the foundation of the GFA. The GFA addressed complex issues surrounding status and sovereignty, introduced a devolved system of government, and resulted in a significant reduction in sectarian violence. It sought to ensure fair representation and equal treatment of communities as well as political neutrality and accountability, including through a police organization ‘that can enjoy widespread support from, and is seen as an integral part of, the community as a whole’. 

The Patten Commission

One year after the GFA, the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, also known as the Patten Commission, published a report with 175 recommendations on the symbolic and practical changes needed for comprehensive police reform. Major recommendations included removing British symbols, renaming the RUC, implementing a 50:50 recruitment policy for Catholics and Protestants for at least 10 years, and establishing a new policing board and a police ombudsman to hold the police accountable. 

While most Patten Commission recommendations were realized, Sinn Fein, a hard-line Irish Republican party, refused to endorse the legitimacy of the PSNI and did not fill its seats on the Northern Ireland Policing Board (NIPB). This indicated that the question of police legitimacy in Nationalist and Republican communities was yet to be resolved.

The St Andrews Agreement

After eight years of police reform, the PSNI’s legitimacy deficit was finally resolved in 2006 by the St Andrews Agreement. With this agreement to restore the devolved government of Northern Ireland, which had collapsed due to security issues such as the progress of decommissioning, Sinn Fein finally revised its opposition to the PSNI. This contributed to consolidating police legitimacy and led to the next step of the police reform process—the devolution of policing and justice. The St Andrews Agreement also provided a backdrop to the decision of two signatories, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which led the devolved government, to end the 50:50 recruitment principle when the Patten Commission target of 30 per cent Catholic officers was achieved.

The Hillsborough Castle Agreement

With cross-community endorsement of the PSNI, in 2010 the British Government and the Northern Irish parties signed the Hillsborough Castle Agreement to devolve control over policing and justice from the British Government in London to the Northern Irish administration in Stormont. A new Department of Justice was established, in cooperation with the NIPB, and mandated to administer the operations of the PSNI. To guarantee the political impartiality of the new department, the justice minister would be appointed on the basis of cross-community consent, an exception to Stormont’s power-sharing principle. 


Achievements of post-Patten policing 


Organizational diversity

The Patten Commission promoted diversity in the police to reflect the composition of society, and thereby encourage perceptions of a more neutral and representative police. The 50:50 rule was introduced in 2001. At that time, only 8 per cent of the police organization identified as Catholic while Northern Ireland’s Catholic population had reached 40.2 per cent of the total.

Proportion of police officers and staff by perceived community background
Proportion of police officers and staff by perceived community background, 2009–19

Note: Percentages may not add up to 100 since some respondents identified themselves as ‘other’.

Source: Police Service of Northern Ireland Annual Reports and Accounts, 2009–19.

Personnel composition has become more diversified, with the number of Catholic officers increasing until the 50:50 recruitment rule ended in 2011 (see figure 1). The PSNI thus became more representative, especially in the Nationalist Catholic communities that had perceived themselves as marginalized or treated differently by police. The engagement of Catholic communities in the police service has been sustained despite the end of the affirmative recruitment policy. However, the 70:30 ratio of Protestant to Catholic police officers has become fixed and is now the status quo, while the Catholic population (42 per cent) of Northern Ireland has further increased to become similar in size to the Protestant population (44 per cent). 

While the PSNI has rejected the reintroduction of the 50:50 rule, it still lacks a genuine solution to the current impasse. Catholics face more disincentives to joining the police as it may entail greater risks to life for themselves or their families as a result of being targeted by paramilitary attacks. In some cases, Catholics who join the police have become alienated from their families. Under-representation of working-class Catholics is another diversity challenge for the PSNI, which has tended to recruit individuals from the middle class and has no specific plan to boost working-class recruitment in the short or medium terms. 

Community engagement

Along with independent oversight institutions such as the NIPB and the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, the PSNI has implemented community-centred policing as a means of becoming more representative and inclusive in its service delivery. Policing and Community Safety Partnerships (PCSPs) are independent local bodies that bring together policing institutions and local people. Supported by the NIPB and the PSNI, they reflect on community needs in the delivery of justice and lead bottom-up community policing. Their local inputs constitute a key component of policing, particularly the identification of crime hotspots and delivering police service in marginalized areas. So far, the PCSPs have produced some positive outcomes

However, over the past four years, levels of satisfaction with everyday policing have fluctuated in both Nationalist and Unionist communities, with less confidence in policing among the former. Despite the PSNI’s all-encompassing community policing policy, the NIPB has discovered that the PSNI’s Policing with the Community (PwC) branch was not fully engaged in implementing PwC programmes. Instead, these have become solely the responsibility of policing districts. Moreover, the central police service monitors neither the actual progress of the community policing programmes nor changes in public confidence in target areas. To tackle this issue, the police need to be more systematic in their operations and more visible and inclusive in everyday policing. It is particularly important to recruit more police officers from marginalized Catholic communities, where residents are subject to vigilantism and self-policing by paramilitaries. 


Future challenges


Cross-border organized crime

Although the PSNI can point to a decrease in the crime rate for more than a decade, cross-border organized crime, which is believed to involve paramilitaries, remains a problem. Fear of organized crime is widespread and increasing, which could lead to declining public confidence in law enforcement. Difficulties in tackling organized crime are likely to worsen following Brexit, as suggested by the cross-agency Organised Crime Task Force. Cooperation with An Garda Síochána, the police service of Ireland, as well as with other British police services is essential. However, a recent report warns that Brexit is likely to loosen various partnerships and law enforcement cooperation arrangements such as the European Arrest Warrant and Europol. Chronic organized crime could grow as a result of the creation of a hard border—that is, a highly controlled and regulated border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. If local communities are silenced by fear of this crime, then the partnership between the PSNI and communities in crime prevention and investigation, a crucial element of community policing, will be at stake. 


To Republican paramilitaries, the police—whether the RUC or the PSNI—have continuously been seen as a symbol of oppression and thus a target for sectarian violence. Paramilitary punishments aimed at maintaining control and support within communities are another manifestation of the existing security gap in Northern Ireland. Paramilitary groups, regardless of their political orientation, justify self-policing as protecting the community from crime where the PSNI will not or cannot act. The resulting casualties are found especially in the north, including the two major cities, Belfast and Derry/Londonderry. This situation could escalate to imperil the rule of law and further undermine the ability of the PSNI to consolidate public confidence. This is all the more likely since the PSNI has already suffered from considerable budget cuts that have reduced its size and led to criticisms for poor quality of service delivery.

Although the number of paramilitary attacks has been gradually declining, the security situation remains worrying, as does the negative impact of Brexit on stability and security. The PSNI has announced that it would not staff custom checkpoints or conduct other border security functions in the event of the reintroduction of border controls. Nonetheless, the prospect of civil disorder in the wake of Brexit has led to PSNI officers being hired for or redeployed to Brexit-related duties. These duties could include countering possible paramilitary attacks on any infrastructure that would be built in the case of Brexit proceeding without agreement on cross-border trade and cooperation (a ‘hard’ Brexit).

Truth and reconciliation 

Continued segregation of Catholic and Protestant communities in housing and schooling as a legacy of the Troubles has been found to facilitate sectarian violence, particularly at the interface of rival highly homogenous communities. Failure to reach agreement between rival political groups, which still struggle to control the narrative of the past, has blocked measures that would help the victims of Troubles-era violence and former prisoners along with their families to move on with their lives. This could simply be through recognition, but in some cases could include material assistance, services or employment opportunities. 

The continued existence of paramilitary groups and activities is linked to the failure of the peace process to confront the past by investigating abuses committed during the conflict by all sides, including state actors, and thereby seek reconciliation in a society that remains deeply traumatized. Further, the PSNI’s limited will and capacity to investigate unsolved killings during the Troubles has arguably led to the re-politicization of policing. Long delays in inquests and criminal investigations into killings that occurred during The Troubles have frustrated both Republican and Unionist communities. Former British Army soldiers who served in Northern Ireland had faced disproportionately few prosecutions. This changed in recent years, leading some British politicians to criticise the system as ‘unfair’, while Unionist politicians have proposed that a statute of limitations apply to all killings by British military personnel in cases where an investigation had already been conducted. Slow progress has been made towards a new, more coherent approach to dealing with the past, based on the creation of four institutions as proposed in the Stormont Agreement of 2014, and which was the subject of broad consultations in 2018. 


Police reform and the long road to peace 

Compared to the Troubles era, the comprehensive police reform process stemming from the Good Friday Agreement has achieved considerable success in securing greater police legitimacy and rebuilding relationships with conflict-affected communities. With measures that have ranged from changing the symbols of the police to embracing principles of inclusion, impartiality, accountability and effectiveness and the implementation of community policing, the PSNI has been able to reform its image from that of the oppressive RUC. This transformation could not have been achieved without the substantial improvement insecurity that followed the ceasefire or the progressive institutional guarantees and political endorsements that created a favourable environment. 

However, important challenges remain. The PSNI has yet to become a fully representative organization that reflects Northern Ireland’s society. Inconsistent implementation of policy and worsening resource deficits driven by budget cuts have affected day-to-day community policing, particularly in traditionally marginalized communities. Organized crime and continuing paramilitary attacks on the police are affecting public confidence in the PSNI’s ability to tackle threats. Furthermore, Brexit—perhaps the most divisive current issue in Northern Ireland—is looming, with a resulting strengthening of traditional fault lines and growing insecurity and uncertainty. In the 2016 Brexit referendum, 55.8 per cent of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and 44.2 per cent voted to leave, which generally reflects the geographical division between the Protestant-dominated east and Catholic-populated west (although one-third of Unionists voted to remain and one-sixth of Nationalists voted to leave). Perhaps most fundamentally, the challenges of consolidating trust in and the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of society as a whole are linked to lingering challenges of political legitimacy of the post-conflict state. This highly segregated and divided society has yet to confront the past and initiate reconciliation to overcome persistent inter-communal divisions.


Dr Marina Caparini was until recently a Senior Researcher and Director of the SIPRI Governance and Society Programme.
Juneseo Hwang was an intern with the Peace and Development Programme at SIPRI.