Return to Recent Articles menu

Police: evaluating the “Belfast solution”

The endless search for police accountability

A report by John McAnulty

19 March 2014

The annual Rosemary Nelson memorial lecture on accountability and transparency in policing operations was held in Conway Mill, Belfast on March 14th.( Rosemary was a human rights lawyer murdered by loyalists with strong evidence of police collusion and an ongoing cover-up by the state. Friends and colleagues organize the annual event in her name). The meeting showed a strange transition. The terms in which the meeting was posed - the language of accountability and transparency -fitted comfortably into the worldview of reform and accommodation that underlines the ideology of the peace process.

However the actual testimony to the meeting contradicted that initial impression. The evidence was that the attempt at police reform and participation in policing boards had failed utterly and that criminal conspiracy by the police was commonplace in British and Irish forces.

Increasingly the discussion focused on issues of defence rather than on the idea that police could be democratically controlled.

The central element of the meeting was a presentation by Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ). It outlined the reality of policing boards. The actual activities of the police were "operational matters" forever out of reach or control.

In the North of Ireland there was another factor: the policing of republican activists was transferred to MI5, who had their second major headquarters in the North. National security legislation prevented any knowledge or control of their activities. 

The meeting was reminded that the main charge against the RUC was that the Special Branch had constituted a "force within a force" carrying on a dirty war against a civilian population. MI5 was now a "force without a force" with unlimited freedom in their operations. 

We are forbidden to know the composition of MI5, but it is both possible and likely that former members of RUC special branch have found a home there, as they did in the PSNI after the Patton "reforms."

A number of republicans, speaking from the floor, gave bitter witness to continued repression. "Internment by remand" was not hidden in history but a reality today.  The cases of Stephen Murney, held on remand for facebook pictures of police harassment and of republican Martin Corey, interned, released at night in a sealed van, and surrounded by bail restrictions that made him a non-person, illustrated the hidden police state.

Claire Daly and Mick Wallace gave an account of a long and difficult struggle to expose Garda corruption. Two main points emerged. The first was that the scandal over traffic tickets was dwarfed by the full story of corruption and criminal conspiracy that the media refused to carry. The second was the extent to which key elements of society combined to provide immunity to the Guards, no matter how clear and damning the evidence of guilt. Working people were open to casual abuse as long as the Guards retained the power to independently prosecute individuals.
Stafford Scott of the Mark Duggan campaign Gave an account of an ongoing war between the police and London's Black community. The police were able to rely on the support of the establishment and judiciary. An example was the findings of the Mark Duggan inquest, where a jury rejected police claims that he had a gun, but then found that he had been killed legally. The police had the right to kill anyone who they believed posed a threat, no matter what the evidence.

A significant point made by Stafford was about the strategy of the metropolitan police to regain credibility in the face of endless scandal. They called it the "Belfast strategy" and they understood that very simply as persuading members of the oppressed to join their ranks and provide them with cover.      

The meeting did not come to a specific conclusion other than to express a renewed solidarity between those facing police repression. However a distinct change did take place. The language of accountability was replaced by a growing recognition that reform of the police in the North had failed. If it had been successful then exporting the "Belfast model" to London and Dublin might have been advocated as a path of reform. As things are, the focus was on a common need to challenge repression. 


Return to top of page