Wednesday, 10 August 2011
Policing Problems : The Fault Lines Exposed
Post GFA policing remained a major problem for those pushing the normalization process. The provisional movement recognized that trust in the “reformed” service was nowhere near the levels required for it to be effective. They refused to engage with the new policing structures. PSNI, it was declared stood for “Patten Still Not Implemented”. Murals highlighted the widespread view that the PSNI were merely the RUC in new uniforms. There was a rational analysis behind this objection. Aside from the republican standpoint of refusing to be policed by an occupational force the PSNI was and is full of RUC veterans. Given that the reputation of the RUC was atrocious in every nationalist area after 30 years of harassment and state sponsored intimidation it became imperative for a rebrand.
However the Provisional movement was forced by events to speed up its long term plans. St Andrews was to be the death knell of provisional resistance to total acquiescence to British plans. The acceptance of policing was no longer a choice. Adams and co duly delivered albeit losing many activists who went on to form eirigi. Republicans had never enjoyed any honeymoon period with the rebranded RUC and from 1998 onwards had been treated in the same fashion as they had prior to the signing of the agreement. However the provisional movement had been content to label those who opposed the sell out as fringe groups, thugs and criminals. The republican political opposition was not engaged with. A problem now emerged. There were many who supported Sinn Fein but were not so keen on the PSNI. They were willing to give the benefit of the doubt but it was not clear would they hold their tongue.
This dynamic produced a twin track process. Republicans were consistently vilified personally and politically. This was then used as the justification for PSNI harassment against them. The PSNI were also held up as a totally new, shiny, equal opportunity and fun for all the family force. They even hired Catholics and some of them spoke Irish! The retreat into sectarian justification for support of policing was ultimately to backfire. However the death of Ronan Kerr highlighted the approach that Sinn Fein took to policing and politics. The furore over the execution of a police officer became imbued with a sickening sectarian slant. He was described constantly as a “Catholic officer, GAA player, nationalist” as if those terms precluded the fact that he was a serving police officer in an occupational force. In short the arguments brought forward by Sinn Fein and their supporters was that he shouldn’t have been targeted because he “was one of us”. identity politics had reached its zenith!
It is within this context that recent developments have created a major headache for Sinn Fein. The recent cycle of raiding in republicans area, the handling of rioting and the stances of the PSNI towards loyalists have caused a schism within the ranks of nationalists supporting the force. First there was the orchestrated attacks by the UVF on the short strand. The PSNI stood by and allowed loyalists to invade and attack a republican area. Their response to hundreds of masked loyalist rioters was tame and muted. The residents were by no means anti agreement hardliners. They were simply people being attacked by mobs. The condemnations of the PSNI response began to trickle out of Sinn Fein as the anger of their constituents was relayed.
The loyalists were placated and the UVF was thrown a few crumbs from the executive. In the run up to the 12th things became even more blatant. After loyalists rioted over the PSNI removing flags they had illegally erected the PSNI apologized to the loyalists. This enraged even moderate nationalists who pointed to the total disparity in response from the PSNI to loyalists and republicans. However it was not the apology that was most telling. It was the lack of arrests following the rioting. Without fail the PSNI had followed up any rioting from republicans with mass arrests and swamping republican communities with land rovers and police. There was no such response to the loyalists.
In Derry the scale of abuse of residents in the Creggan area resulted in independent community groups holding a meeting to discuss the abuse suffered at the hands of the PSNI. Over 200 residents, community groups and even an SDLP councillor attended. Yet Sinn Fein sent no representative, nor condemned any of the atrocious antics of the PSNI that prompted the meeting to be held. This was because the area was perceived by Sinn Fein to be a “dissident stronghold” . The stance was made clear. When the actions of the PSNI affected Sinn Fein supporters they would be challenged. When they affected republicans still challenging the occupation they would be brushed over.
The PSNI highlighted their biased approach even further when they invaded Ardoyne on the night of the 12th of July. After hours of attacking residents with plastic bullets and water cannons they sent in land rovers and hundreds of their baton wielding thugs. Residents were terrified as the invasion swept through the area attacking anyone suspected of defending their community. In the days following dozens of arrests were made and continue to be made. To date there have been no arrests over the rioting by loyalists in Ballyclare and elsewhere in South Antrim. Pictures were released of the rioters in Ardoyne. No pictures have been released of Loyalists.
Gerry “these dissidents are outsiders” Kelly was forced to condemn the PSNI and their shocking treatment of Ardoyne residents. The complaints were coming thick and fast about the behaviour of the police and no longer could they be brushed aside as the howls of dissenters refusing to move on. Sinn Fein were becoming increasingly exasperated with the openly sectarian displays by their police force. Rather than give the poor shinners a breathing space the PSNI promptly created a fresh headache for the party in Tyrone.
Amid massive publicity the PSNI launched a series of massive raids in Tyrone. Over 200 of their thugs tore apart family homes across the county. All of this was “intelligence led policing”. Martin MacGuinness was tripping over himself to welcome the raids as a response to the execution of Ronan Kerr. Martin really should have learned to choose his words carefully but enthused by the supposed arrest of republicans he had no problem welcoming the arrests and stated “we must support the police in their investigations”. Now unfortunately for Martin the police had arrested nobody remotely linked to militant republicanism. Worse again the local Sinn Fein councillor began condemning the raids. Francie Molloy condemned them also. Martin got the familiar feeling of having firmly shoved his foot in his mouth and started back pedalling furiously. Now the arrests were wrong. Martin didn’t even need to await the police investigation, despite having welcomed it 24 hours earlier he now demanded the release of one of the men arrested. The familiar whiff of hypocrisy emanated from Martin but this time it wasn’t republicans pointing it out. A furious row began between the PSNI and Sinn Fein. Matt Baggot and his minions don’t like being criticized. Neither does Martin or his bearded cheerleader in Leinster house! An impasse has now been reached between Sinn Fein and their police force. Having accepted, endorsed, promoted and cheer leaded them they have had a falling out.
Republicans are no doubt tempted to sit back, laugh and say well we told you so. Now is not the time for that. What these incidents really show is an ideological fault line being exposed within the provisional movement. They may have abandoned republican principles but many of their grassroots supporters have held onto the hope that progress has really been made. Two strands of this trust are the judicial system and the police. The ongoing horrific treatment of the POWs in Maghaberry and the internment of veteran republicans has raised question marks for many of them. The PSNI over the past few months have managed to undo a considerable amount of the work that the Sinn Fein leadership put into presenting them as a impartial force. Sinn Fein cannot withdraw their support for the PSNI, they hold no cards in this dispute and they know it. They are being kept on a tighter and tighter leash. Increasingly the antagonisms between their day to day actions and the aspirations of their traditional support base are being exasperated. It is up to republicans to make our case against policing firmly and more importantly publicly.
Debate and dialogue must be encouraged independently of republican groups. There is an uneasiness amongst many Sinn Fein supporters who are disillusioned with what the GFA has delivered but are wary of being left in the wilderness, rejected by those they have opposed. This is why republicans must organize meetings, debates and events to make our case against British policing. It must be made apparent that the problem with the PSNI is not how many of them carry rosary beads or can kick a decent point but the fact that they wear the uniform of the occupation. We must link the anger that many supporters of the agreement feel about their recent actions to its historical context. They are not impartial, they are not acceptable and they are not welcome in republican communities. We must spread this message and do it quickly!
Frank Ryan society