In Northern Ireland, police reform meant tackling institutional sectarianism

Jun 24, 2020

Northern Ireland saw violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants for three decades. Then in 2001, residents decided to dismantle its mostly Protestant police force and design a new one — one that would include Catholics.

What happened in Northern Ireland could provide some lessons for the United States, where there are increasing calls to defund or abolish police departments in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd last month.

The World spoke with Duncan Morrow, a politics professor at Ulster University in Belfast, about police reform in Northern Ireland and whether it could serve as a model for change in a deeply divided US.

Related: Police reform requires culture change, not just diversity, advocates say

Marco Werman: Obviously, what happened in Northern Ireland as the Troubles were ending is very different from the conversations we're having about systemic racism here in the US today. But do you see similarities in these conversations about how to reinvent policing?

Duncan Morrow: We see similarities on so many different levels. One level is, we did have a real problem inside the police of what was called institutional sectarianism. It was the institutional aspect that was most complicated. That wasn't so much the attitudes of officers. It was the way in which over years, Catholics just didn't join the police. So, by the end of our Troubles, it was a 92% Protestant organization, and that was extremely problematic in a society which is more equal.

Why were Catholics not joining the police department?

From the very beginning of Northern Ireland, they never identified with the Northern Ireland state. And so, they basically regarded the police as the front face of that state. And so, being in the police in some ways for Catholics was always seen as somehow suspicious. And then on the other side, the culture that then developed inside the police obviously was dominated by, if you like, people from the other side of the community, from the Protestant side of the community. So, policing became nearly a Protestant profession.

Related: From Minneapolis to Madrid, racial profiling and police harassment cost lives

What would you say were the three most important reforms that really changed policing in Northern Ireland?

The first one, I think, was they ensured that the governance of policing, in other words, the oversight and the way police was organized really was accountable to the whole community. And they did that by creating what was called the policing board, which brought people in from all political parties, but also independents who had a technical ability. And the chief of police is responsible for giving an account to them of what he has done.

The second element, I suppose, was recruitment in order to ensure here that it was really a representative police force. They recruited people from the whole community very deliberately in the first 11 years through a process, which was called the 50/50 process. And that meant that 50% of the new recruits for 11 years came from a Catholic background. So, recruitment was very important.

And then the third element was probably accountability. We have a system of complaints where any complaint about the police goes to an independent body called the police ombudsman's office. That complaint is handled by individual investigators and they also investigate, as a matter of course, any time when there is a death involving a police officer. And as a matter of course, any time when a firearm is used. So, all of those complaints run through an independent office. And that was to give confidence to people that it wasn't being investigated from the side of the police, but really was being investigated in a fair and open process.

Did these changes and reforms work? Did they stick?

I think anybody in Northern Ireland would say they worked absolutely fantastically in some ways. In the sense that there's been very few police deaths since. There have been very few instances where the police have actually been involved in use-of-force and in some circumstances, particularly where there is still a real deep controversy in this society around the old issues. And those tend to be for us around something called parades, where they become very controversial at certain times.

The police here have developed actually very interesting ways of trying to manage those, which involve liaison with the community, but also trying to minimize and deescalate the violence. So, I would say that overall it has been a huge success. At the same time, there are still issues. Relationships with police do continue to be complicated over certain issues, particularly over legacy issues from the past or where there's a particularly controversial decision. And in some communities, it's been more difficult than others to build those relationships. So, all of that is still true. But if you were to compare where the police service is 20 years later and where they were 20 years ago, it is almost night and day.

You gave a TED talk where you asked, how do you build a future after all the trauma? That's an important question for us in the US right now. So, let's ask it. How do you build a future after all the trauma?

There needs to be a commitment from the leadership that that's where we're going. So that is no longer about defeating the other, it is about actually agreeing to trade at least these different ideas of how the future will be shared in the future. The second thing, I suppose, is that there are a number of things, which we know we're going to have to deal with, and I suppose for us, those are around some of the complicated issues of equality, which have to be faced and simply addressed.

And a lot of those are amenable to mathematics. Those are complex to trade and to work, but they're still important to deal with. And those include justice questions and questions around policing. And then I suppose the third element is that some of this is open-ended. In fact, all of it is open-ended. We're going to a place we don't quite know. So, there is a requirement to build real dialogue across the community, a capacity for people to contribute. And what I called in that TED talk, a learning society, we are trying to get somewhere we haven't been before. So, something which allows participation more widely than just through politics. It's also important.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.


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