Policing for Peace in Northern Ireland: Change, Conflict, and Community Confidence

Policing for Peace in Northern Ireland: Change, Conflict, and Community Confidence Author: Joanne Murphy
Publisher: London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 240 p.
Reviewer: R. Allen Hays | September 2013

There are two points upon which, I believe, all knowledgeable observers of the recent history of Northern Ireland will agree: (1) that profound changes in the nature of policing were essential to the success of the peace process; and (2) that these changes were incredibly wrenching and difficult for the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), now the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), at all levels of the organization.  Joanne Murphy has written an excellent book describing how the change process within the organization unfolded, within the context of intense external political pressures.  Basing her work on the extensive literature on organizational change, she describes the leadership strategies that were critical to overcoming intense opposition and making the changes a reality.

The RUC was on the front lines of the 30 year sectarian struggle in Northern Ireland. A total of 302 officers were killed, and as many as 9,000 others were wounded.   Before and during the struggle, the RUC was an overwhelmingly Protestant/unionist body, and it was viewed by the Catholic/nationalist community as an instrument of discrimination and oppression. Even though the RUC battled and arrested unionist paramilitaries, as well as the nationalist Provisional IRA, its enforcement activities were widely perceived as biased against Catholics. At the same time, RUC officers viewed themselves as fighting a heroic struggle against violence and disorder.

The Belfast (Good Friday) peace agreement of 1998 called for the creation of an independent commission to recommend changes in policing.  The Independent Commission on Policing, typically referred to as the Patten Commission after its Chair, came up with 175 recommendations which amounted to a profound change in the RUC.  Its name and symbols were to be changed; it was to engage in selective recruiting of Catholic officers; and it was to shift from an insurgency suppression model to a community based policing model.  Many police officers, as well as many members of the unionist community, saw these changes as a grievous insult to the struggle and sacrifice of the RUC. Nationalists, on the other hand, simply were not going to cooperate with the police, or see them as legitimate, without these changes.  The net result of the process was the rather rapid implementation of many of the Patten recommendations, including changing the name to the PSNI.

Utilizing a series of in depth interviews, Professor Murphy deftly traces the strategies employed by the first two Chief Constables, Ronnie Flannigan and Hugh Orde.  She shows that, while their leadership styles were very different, each made a vital contribution at a different stage of the change process. She describes Flannigan as a skilled leader who, while pushing hard to implement the Patten recommendations, was able to provide reassurance to RUC officers that he respected and valued their tradition and sacrifices.  This strategy helped mute some of the intense, emotional reactions to change. She describes Orde as a direct, no-nonsense administrator who was focused on the details of implementation but who, at the same time, had an astute sense of the political dynamics of the situation, even though he was recruited from outside Northern Ireland.  She finds her interview subjects to be less sanguine about the skills of Matt Baggott, who was the current Chief Constable at the time she was conducting her research. They view him as often unable to grasp the full political implications of some of his actions. 

While the author makes frequent references to the reactions of rank and file officers to the changes, her principal focus is on decisions and strategies carried out at the top of the organization. For this reason, the book fails to convey a clear sense of how these changes were affecting the day to day activities of policing. The basic dilemma faced by RUC/PSNI officers was that they were tasked with carrying out normal policing activities, such as keeping order and apprehending criminals, in a rapidly changing social and security context.  They had to negotiate the changing roles of paramilitary organizations who had acted as informal police forces within their communities during the so-called Troubles but who were being asked to turn over this policing function to the PSNI.  As one person whom I interviewed in my own research put it, they had to sit across the table from people who were formerly trying to kill them, and work out strategies to keep communities safe. (And, of course, some fringe groups are still trying to do them harm.) A focus on decisions at the top is certainly a legitimate scholarly strategy — one that provides important insights. However, greater attention to the street level impact of these decisions would have rounded out the work.

Professor Murphy also makes numerous references to “community policing” without really exploring what that means, either in general as an internationally recognized strategy, or in the context of Northern Ireland. In looking at the effectiveness of community policing, the international literature suggests mixed results, whether due to widely differing levels of effectiveness in implementing it or due to the inherent intractability of disorder problems, particularly in disadvantaged neighborhoods.  In Northern Ireland, community policing demanded that the police work more closely with communities that still harbored profound distrust of their authority.  Deep civilian engagement in policing was considered essential to establishing its legitimacy in Northern Ireland, with the result that the PSNI is subject to many more layers of civilian involvement and control than police organizations in many other countries.  It would have been useful for the author to provide a clearer picture of how police officers and commanders are interpreting and navigating this civilian engagement and oversight, because this is vital to the success of the change process.

Reductions in force constitute another dimension of change in policing in Northern Ireland to which the author devotes considerable attention. Murphy provides an illuminating discussion of the use of generous severance packages as incentives for “old guard” officers to retire, in order to make room for new recruits, both Catholic and Protestant, who could be more easily socialized into the changing values of the force.  She points out the downside to this, in terms of the loss of experienced officers and commanders.  However, she could have devoted more attention to the problem of sheer numbers.  At the end of the Troubles, there were approximately 13,000 officers policing a polity of 1.6 million inhabitants.  This created a police/citizen ratio that was several times the ratios in other parts of the United Kingdom and in other countries as well.  As organized violence subsided, a force of this size became unsustainable, so that fairly drastic reductions would have been necessary under any circumstances. The fact that voluntary severance may have been a factor in accelerating changes in the organizational culture was only one dimension of the problem, albeit an important one..

In a concluding chapter, the author briefly discusses the current challenges faced by policing in Northern Ireland. Sectarian conflict has largely been channeled away from organized violence and into the political process, but sectarian differences and prejudices remain strong. Also, fringe nationalist groups, although representing a tiny segment of the population, continue to make the transition difficult for police and for civilians by repeated acts of violence against the police, particularly Catholic recruits. Perhaps wisely, Joanne Murphy does not attempt to predict what the future will hold for policing in this divided polity.

On the whole, this book makes an important contribution to an understanding of the profound changes in policing that have occurred within a relatively short period of time in Northern Ireland. It also contributes to an understanding of organizational change in general.  I would recommend it to anyone who is interested in deepening his or her understanding of this complex situation.

Dr. R. Allen Hays recently retired from the University of Northern Iowa, where he was Director of the Graduate Program in Public Policy

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