A bright future - and less orange

A New beginning - Policing in Northern Ireland
November 19, 1999

Brendan O'Leary reviews the Patten report on Northern Ireland policing and finds its lucid and considered proposals a pleasure to read

There are two ways in which the report of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland (the Patten report) should be read: first, as an able expression of contemporary democratic thought on policing - with thoroughgoing implications for the whole of the United Kingdom, and beyond; and second, as the fulfilment of the commission's mandate under the Good Friday Agreement.

Chris Patten articulates a vision of the governance of policing that will be seen as pioneering. Several fresh logics are apparent, consistent with the report's title, A New Beginning . The subject is "policing Northern Ireland" not the "police in Northern Ireland". This logic is understated. Policing should not be the monopoly of a force, or a service. It should be organised in a self-governing democratic society by a plurality, indeed a network, of agents and organisations.

The logic is apparent in the title of the proposed "policing board" recommended to replace the present unelected Police Authority - which has no authority and less legitimacy. The board will bring together ten elected politicians, drawn in proportion to their respective strength in seats from the parties that comprise the new Northern Ireland executive, with nine appointed members representative of a range of sectors of civil society, "business, trade unions, voluntary organisations, community groups and the legal profession".

The elected members must not be ministerial office-holders. The unelected members (under a devolved government) will be appointed by the first (unionist) and deputy first (nationalist) ministers. The board is therefore to be representative and at one remove from direct executive power.

A similar logic lies behind giving the board responsibility for negotiating "the annual policing budget with the Northern Ireland Office, or with the appropriate successor body after devolution". Not a police budget, not a budget for the police, but a policing budget, ie public monies proposed and disposed of by representative, democratic bodies.

New and old democratic thinking on accountability is evident. In a telling phrase, "policing is not a task for the police alone", the report builds on Geoffrey Marshall's argument that police should be accountable in two senses: the "subordinate or obedient" sense, and the "explanatory and cooperative sense".

Accountability in the explanatory and cooperative sense places a premium on transparency: among other desiderata this requires open, public deliberation on policing policy instead of meeting "behind closed doors" as happens with the current Police Authority. It requires officers to let people "understand what their police are doing and why", in contrast to the prevailing custom which is "defensive, reactive and cautious in response to questions, as experienced ourselves in relation to some of our own queries".

The report is intended to let police managers manage, but to hold them, post factum , to account for their implementation of the Policing Board's general policing policy, and to enhance the audit and investigative capacities of the board in holding the police to account. The new service will have "operational responsibility", but it will have to justify its managerial discretion.

Most encouragingly, the report recommends rolling back the centralisation of policing that has occurred both in the UK and Ireland during the past two centuries. Accountable decentralisation is proposed through

giving directly elected local governments opportunities to influence the policy formulation of the Policing Board though their own District Policing Partnership Boards. The latter will not merely have the power to question police district commanders but also have the ability to use their own resources to "purchase additional services from the police or statutory agencies, or from the private sector".

The decentralisation of political accountability is to be matched by the internal decentralisation of the police. The devolution of budgets to local district commanders, obliged to be accountable to local District Policing Partnership Boards, will encourage them to experiment - to be accountable for locally sensitive outcomes. They might decide, after local discussions, to organise local groups of unemployed to remove graffiti (to create a more secure and less threatening environment) rather than spend their budget on more officers. Likewise their freedom to choose over internal resources will give meaningful content to decentralisation.

A final new logic is the report's Machiavellian skill in handing some responsibility for order to civil society organisations as well as to the police. For example, the Loyal Orders will be obliged to have their own trained marshals, and their own policing plans, to accompany any requests to organise specific parades. This is a splendid example of combining a right - freedom of assembly - with a duty - the obligation to preserve the peace, law and order in a democratic society.

More immediately, the report has fulfilled its terms of reference under the Good Friday Agreement. The commission was required to propose how to establish a fully "representative" police. Correctly observing that peace and the agreement's implementation will increase the likelihood of Catholics, nationalists and republicans joining the police, the commissioners propose recruiting Catholics and non-Catholics in a 50:50 ratio from the pool of qualified candidates for the next decade.

This matches the population ratios in the younger age cohorts. Given early and scheduled retirements of serving officers, this policy should ensure that 30 per cent of the service will be of Catholic origin within ten years, and between 17 and 19 per cent within four years (above the critical mass claimed essential to change the character of the police).

This is a slower pace of change than some of us advocated, but the commissioners justify it to avoid a service that would have non-Catholic chiefs and Catholic Indians. By making each successive cohort religiously representative now, and by ensuring that the new service is impartial, the commissioners have an arguable case. Steps may need to be taken, however, to ensure that the new Catholics are broadly representative of the Catholic community - ie mostly nationalist or republican in political opinion.

Patten chose to avoid proposing an explicitly bi-national or bi-cultural police. Instead he plumped for neutrality between unionism/loyalism and nationalism/republicanism. The Northern Ireland Police Service is a neutral title, not least because nationalists in the 1998 referendum, north and south, accepted the current status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK as

long as a majority so determine. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was not a neutral title - so it must go. The display of the Union Jack and of the Queen's portrait at police stations are to go, so as to disassociate the police from identification with the Union, the Crown and the British nation. Full marks to the commissioners.

Where the report is insufficient is in its tolerance of Orange Order, Ancient Order of Hibernian and Masonic membership by serving officers. One can be a fully paid-up liberal but still hold that certain public offices - such as electoral returning officers - require their incumbents to be seen to be impartial. The commissioners' counter-argument, that "it is action or behaviour not attitude that matters", forgets that to belong to a sectarian or secret organisation is an action and a behaviour.

The commission had to recommend arrangements "free from partisan political control". Their brief was not to propose policing divorced from the political environment - a recipe for leaving policing to the police - but to ensure democratic accountability "at all levels" while preventing any dominant political party from being able to direct the police to their advantage.

The Policing Board and the District Policing Partnership Boards (DPPBs) at local government level should meet this objective - 20 out of 26 local government districts now have office-

rotation or power-sharing agreements - though those tasked with implementation might consider extending the d'Hondt principle to the party representatives on the DPPBs. This would be a step consistent with the agreement, and applicable elsewhere in the UK.

The commission was required to promote "efficient and effective" policing arrangements. Here it scores highly. It avoids false economies. Generous severance and early retirement packages will ease fast changes in the composition and ethos of the current personnel: slow and soft disbanding by other names. An initially over-sized Northern Ireland Police Service will be able to: begin a novel experiment in community policing; deter the hard-line paramilitaries opposed to the agreement; manage large-scale public-order functions (mostly occasioned by the "Loyal Orders"); and facilitate faster changes in the service's composition than might otherwise be possible. The provisions enabling local government to out-source policing services will also "market-test" effectiveness, while greater "civilianisation" should free personnel for mainstream policing tasks and deliver long-run savings.

The new arrangements will be infused with a human-rights culture. Officers will have knowledge of human rights built into their training and retraining (provided by academic personnel) and their codes of practice. The astonishing absence of legal personnel within the RUC with expertise in human rights will be remedied. The incorporation of the European Convention into public law, and Northern Ireland's forthcoming provisions to strengthen the rights of national, religious and cultural minorities, will further ensure that policing arrangements have to perform to higher standards.

The report sensibly recommends significant internal

decentralisation within the police, stripping away redundant layers of management to free up district commanders to deliver sensitive policing according to local needs. Better still, Patten recommends matching police internal management units to local government districts. Had the commission recommended a fully two-tier or federal model of policing, it would have facilitated even more rapid changes in the composition and ethos of police officers and made the new arrangements less dependent upon the success of the Good Friday Agreement. The objections to this idea - fears of "balkanisation" and concerns about creating services with different status - are the least convincing part of the report.

The last implicit mandate for Patten was feasible policing arrangements consistent with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The report delivers on this, including recommendations for better-structured cross-border cooperation with the Garda Siochana. Significantly, the recommendations mostly do not depend upon the agreement's institutions for their implementation. The commissioners explicitly recommend most of their changes come what may and give no excuses to the Northern Ireland Office and the British government for overly long delays in implementation. The commissioners thought deeply about implementation, have recommended an office to oversee the required multi-organisational implementation, and have called upon political parties and civil society organisations to play their roles in turning the report from recommendations into reality. It is a novel pleasure to see such lucid and considered proposals formulating British government policy in Northern Ireland.

Brendan O'Leary is professor of political science, London School of Economics. He is the author (with John McGarry) of Policing Northern Ireland: Proposals for a New Start (1999), which was extensively cited in the Patten report.

A New beginning - Policing in Northern Ireland: The Report of the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland

ISBN - Details from: copyright@hmso.gov.uk
Publisher - HMSO
Price - Free
Pages - 128

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments