The Police Service of Northern Ireland: 20 years on

The security threat to PSNI officers is still severe but much has changed since it replaced the RUC

PSNI chief constable George Hamilton during the graduation ceremony of  new police officers. Dr Jonny Byrne, a criminologist at Ulster University, says the PSNI is now ‘the visible symbolism of the new Northern Ireland’ and ‘one of the biggest successes of the peace process’. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

PSNI chief constable George Hamilton during the graduation ceremony of new police officers. Dr Jonny Byrne, a criminologist at Ulster University, says the PSNI is now ‘the visible symbolism of the new Northern Ireland’ and ‘one of the biggest successes of the peace process’. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

 

Today, members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are in places that would have been impossible to imagine 20 years ago, when the force was founded in place of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

They are on bicycles patrolling residential streets in Belfast; they are delivering care packages door to door in Derry during the Covid-19 lockdown; they are queuing for a sandwich in your local Centra at lunchtime.

There are still armoured Land Rovers, but there are also many liveried police cars; police are still armed, and wear body armour, but they now patrol city centres on foot and in pairs, without accompanying soldiers.

However, the security threat they face is still categorised as severe. In the last 20 years two officers have been killed – both by dissident republicans, compared with about 300 during the Troubles.*

“Policing, for the vast majority of people in our society, is normal,” says Mark Lindsay, the chair of the Police Federation in Northern Ireland, which represents rank and file police officers.

In the 20 years since the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) replaced the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), this has been the greatest change; that the militarised, security-focused and overwhelmingly Protestant police force of the past has been replaced by a modernised service reinforced by robust accountability structures – the Police Ombudsman and the Policing Board – and which is, if not fully representative of the communities it serves, is at least more so.

‘Visible symbolism’

“There are very few things we can point to in Northern Ireland in terms of tangible differences,” says Dr Jonny Byrne, a criminologist at Ulster University. The PSNI are “the visible symbolism of the new Northern Ireland ... I do think they’re one of the biggest successes of the peace process,” he says.

The creation of the PSNI in November 2001 was one of the outworkings of that peace process; a recommendation by Lord Patten in his report into policing which was commissioned after the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998.

At the time, Mark Hamilton was an inspector in a public order unit. He remembers 2001 as “a very difficult summer with parades, an awful lot of violence, and then the horrors of Holy Cross erupted in September ... then there was a winter of disorder which was much worse than anything we’d seen in recent years, and there’d been a spate of sectarian murders as well.”

Twenty years on, he is now deputy chief constable, the second most senior officer in the PSNI. The makeup of the force has changed, with a minority – 17 per cent – of officers also former members of the RUC; so too has the types of crime and the increased demand around, for example, domestic violence, where the PSNI receive a call approximately every 20 minutes.

“When I was a young constable it was not very common to have to deal with people in mental crisis – it’s extremely common now, it’s a daily event,” says Hamilton.

From 2001-2011, there was substantial investment as the Patten proposals were implemented; as the force downsized, uniforms changed, the British army left and structures were normalised and modernised, the tone and approach shifted “from the notion of a force to a service”; coupled with a fall in the level of violence, this “gave much more space for community policing skill sets ... and also more space for the community to pull towards the police,” he says.

Under the policy of 50:50 recruitment the percentage of Catholic officers rose from 8 per cent in 2001 to almost 30 per cent when the 50:50 system ended in 2011.

In today’s force 67 per cent are Protestant and 32 per cent Catholic, with a greater disparity – 78 per cent Protestant compared to 20 per cent Catholic – among civilian staff. Seventy per cent of officers are male and 30 per cent are female; less than 1 per cent are from an ethnic minority; 17 per cent were also members of the RUC.

PSNI foot patrol in Belfast. Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press
PSNI foot patrol in Belfast. Photograph: Stephen Davison/Pacemaker Press

Religious breakdown

However, the religious breakdown of officers has remained broadly stagnant since 2011. The percentage of Catholic appointees is falling; in last year’s recruitment campaign 31 per cent of applicants were Catholic, and 24 per cent of appointees.

The PSNI acknowledges work needs to be done to attract not just Catholics, but more women and ethnic minorities; among those from a Catholic background, barriers to recruitment include the security implications of joining the PSNI and concerns over the police’s handling of legacy issues.

Once the most senior Catholic police officer, former assistant chief constable Peter Sheridan joined the RUC in the 1970s; he had to stop playing Gaelic football, and “Mass every Sunday, well I couldn’t go to the same chapel every Sunday.”

Now an assistant chief constable with Cheshire police, Una Jennings was one of the first new recruits to join the PSNI in 2001 and was one of about 15 who were Catholic.

She told BBC Radio Foyle how she had “applied to join the police, much to my mum and dad’s horror ... it felt so alien to me, I didn’t know anybody in my school, anybody in my church community, anybody in my actual community who had been in the police.”

It’s still very difficult for people from certain areas to join the police

As a police officer she had to live in a different town; “I couldn’t live in Derry, and when I did come back to Donegal to live for a while it was very difficult because I got a lot of unwanted attention because of the job I was doing.”

This threat remains. “I haven’t seen an awful lot of change in some areas,” says Lindsay. “It’s still very difficult for people from certain areas to join the police – their lifestyle has to change, they invariably have to move home, if their parents live in that area they invariably can’t visit their parents on a regular basis, some elements of their sporting clubs present difficulties.

“It’s not necessarily that policing isn’t seen as an attractive career, it’s the sacrifices that have to be made in order for people to go down that path.”

Recruitment campaign

Earlier this week the PSNI launched a recruitment campaign to hire 400 new officers; it will include outreach programmes in both nationalist and loyalist areas to try to increase the spread of applicants.

Speaking after the launch, Hamilton said his estimate was that it would take “probably at another 10 years of hard work at this at least” to achieve the normalisation of society Patten had envisaged and he warned that the “answer doesn’t lie solely with people like me and my colleagues trying to work out how to recruit more people” but that wider society – and its representatives – also have a role to play.

“I’m a little bit annoyed and disappointed with my own community,” says the former chair of the Policing Board, Denis Bradley. "I cannot stand hand on heart and say that the Catholic and nationalist community has been as embracing [of policing] and as positive and as proactive as they should be and they should have been over the last 10 to 15 years.

“Because the dissidents were there and because of the old histories there has been a reluctance, I also think Sinn Féin came to this issue slow and they came to it hesitantly, trying to all the time look forward but also look over their shoulders at their own supporters, and therefore have always been tepid within their enthusiasm and I think that has affected the communities as well.

The narrative around two-tier policing is dangerous because it becomes easy to articulate and then it becomes about politics and not about policing

He adds to this list churches, schools and sport, saying the “culture” of natural engagement and encouragement that leads young people to a career in the police “does not exist within the nationalist community within Northern Ireland because of our history, and that’s what we need to create”.

The Policing Board, he says, “needs to be more proactive in its engagement” and to challenge nationalist and loyalist communities on recruitment as well as holding the police to account.

Loyalists clash with PSNI officers in Belfast earlier this week. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Loyalists clash with PSNI officers in Belfast earlier this week. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

‘Two-tier’ policing

On contemporary claims from sections of loyalism and unionism of “two-tier” policing favourable to nationalists, Hamilton says the PSNI “genuinely listening” to the criticisms raised; Byrne questions the veracity of the claim, saying that “as a slogan it’s become mainstream and institutionalised within broader unionism, and I’ve yet to see evidence for it in terms of statistics to back it up.

“The narrative around two-tier policing is dangerous because it becomes easy to articulate and then it becomes about politics and not about policing.”

This, says Byrne, is one of the challenges of policing in the post-conflict context “because any behaviour or any action taken then automatically manifests itself into a risk to the actual political process”.

He cites recent controversies over the funeral of senior republican Bobby Storey, the arrest of a victim of loyalist violence at a commemoration on Belfast’s Ormeau Road, a loyalist “show of strength” in Pitt Park in east Belfast.

“All of a sudden you have these small micro-operational police issues that automatically become massive political headaches, and that wouldn’t happen in any other jurisdiction.”

Sheridan, too, criticises how policing “in recent times has almost been repoliticised ... people made judgments about what happened on the Ormeau Road before the Ombudsman had even opened her notebook.

“Rather than calling for the chief constable to resign politicians should have been stepping back and saying, look, we’ve set up accountability procedures, let these work their way through... and yet all of those political parties have representatives on the Policing Board and we have an independent Police Ombudsman.”

“The constant narrative around two-tier policing and criticism of the police is what undermines confidence in communities,” the North’s Minister for Justice, Naomi Long, told the Stormont Assembly this week; what would build confidence, she said, is if we did what was envisaged in the Patten report and took politics out of policing.

In policing as in society at large, it is self-evident that the outworkings of the past continue to affect the present and future, both through the need to police the continuing paramilitary threat and the impact of legacy. This week relatives of 12 people killed by loyalists in South Belfast protested outside the offices of the Policing Board over delays to the publication of a Police Ombudsman report which they claim the police is blocking to protect British state agents.

“It has been said by people from communities that legacy issues which are very difficult, very complex, highly sensitive at times do reflect badly on the PSNI,” says Hamilton. “We have statutory duties, we have to carry them out, sometimes it’s uncomfortable but we have to do it [and] this feeds into the whole part of the debate [about legacy] I don’t think many of us had thought about 20 years ago.”

“I think whenever we continually link modern-day policing with policing of different times ... I think that creates great difficulties for policing going forward,” says Lindsay.

“Of course policing didn’t always get it right, there were things that went wrong, and there’s things that maybe shouldn’t have happened, but they need to be dealt with in the context of where Northern Ireland was at the time, they were unprecedented times.

“We need to be looking with more optimism, dealing with the past, yes, but without dragging current day policing through the mire to get there.”

Challenges ahead

There are other challenges ahead, not least regarding the police’s relationship with black and ethnic minority communities following a critical report by the Police Ombudsman into its handling of Black Lives Matters protests in 2020 as well as its approach to violence against women and girls in the wake of the murder of Sarah Everard and its handling of sexual harassment allegations within the organisation.

We have to recognise that the environment has changed for the better, and policing has changed for the better. It is more reflective of society

Yet Bradley admits to optimism: “I do think there’s a change happening within the broad society which has not quite worked itself out yet.”

He describes a burglary in a nationalist area of Derry this week during which an 80-year-old woman had her eyes taped shut by the intruders. “The police were within the community doing house to house, and I discovered that the response to the police was very positive.

“So it’s not all the headline stuff that actually makes the difference, nor the politics ... policing needs to keep its head, it needs to continue to do the job.”

“We have to recognise that the environment has changed for the better, and policing has changed for the better. It is more reflective of society,” says Sheridan.

“Have we reached the end of it? No, but I suspect we will never reach the end of it.

“There will always be challenges to make policing better and more effective and more efficient, but we still have some way to go in terms of the peace process and that goes for society as well.”

*This article was amended on November 7th 2021