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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Releases > 2004

Human Rights and Police Reform in Northern Ireland

Mitchell B. Reiss, Director, Policy Planning Staff
Testimony to the U.S. Helsinki Commission
Washington, DC
March 16, 2004

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today.

At the outset, I want to commend the Chairman and his colleagues on the Commission for their continuing interest over the years in the Northern Ireland peace process generally and their specific focus on the policing issue. On policing, your Commission was at the forefront in debates about human rights issues. The Commission also closely monitored the evolution of the reform efforts launched by the Patten report on policing and the subsequent implementation process. Your hearing today and the distinguished panel you have assembled is further evidence of this Commission’s interest in supporting a better future for Northern Ireland.

I would also like to thank members of the House and the Senate for their continued bipartisan support for our policy in Northern Ireland. I only recently took up responsibility for Northern Ireland and have already come to value the support and advice of you and your colleagues.

I would like to focus my remarks this morning on policing in Northern Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged police reform as one of the most difficult challenges of the peace process. Some have even suggested that police reform is actually more important than the other elements of the Agreement because policing goes to the core of civic stability and is perhaps the most fundamental relationship between citizens and the state. Before discussing the progress of the police reform effort, I would like to spend a few moments describing the current political context.

In Northern Ireland during the past few years, many analysts find it useful to distinguish between the peace process and the political process.

The peace process, which can be measured by the number of deaths caused by political violence and the level of violence on the streets, has been on a positive trajectory for several years. This is not to say that the people of Northern Ireland should be expected to tolerate any level of paramilitary violence. Paramilitary street violence and gang activity, including “punishment beatings,” remain a problem, but the fact is that the number of deaths caused by paramilitary activities has declined steadily; for a population of over 1.6 million people, these figures are very low. Last summer was also the calmest in decades, with the historically contentious “marching season” passing without violence. We know that political leaders, including the leadership of Sinn Fein, worked long and hard to ensure that last summer was quiet, and we call on them to show the same powerful, positive leadership again this summer.

The political process refers to the success of the governmental institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement. This process has experienced serious difficulties in the past two years. The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have been suspended due to disagreements among the political parties. The election in November 2003 sharpened the differences by returning the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein as the largest parties in the unionist and nationalist communities. Despite these difficulties, we remain optimistic that the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives are committed to the fundamental principles of the Agreement and that they will find a way to get the devolved institutions up and running again.

Despite instability in the political process, the policing institutions have performed well over the past two years. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) was established in November, 2001. At the same time, the new Policing Board came into existence; it has functioned effectively since then with participation from political parties and independent public members. In 2000, Police Ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, started her work of investigating allegations of wrong-doing by the police. By providing a vital new accountability mechanism, she has succeeded in winning public confidence. Last year, the District Policing Partnership Boards (DPPs) were formed by citizens and local councilors to facilitate community accountability of the police at the grass-roots level. The DPPs are a unique innovation of the Patten reforms that are designed to enhance community involvement in policing. Despite these early successes, there is understandable concern that a prolonged political vacuum could weaken public confidence and trust in these institutions.

Even in the best circumstances, policing is always a major challenge in post-conflict situations, whether we’re talking about the Balkans, South Africa or East Timor. As is true in other regions, the end of armed conflict in Northern Ireland has coincided with increases in other types of crime, including mafia-type activity and narcotics trafficking. There have also been occasional difficulties with crowd control during the annual marching season. Another problem is the increase in hate-crimes against vulnerable immigrants, as well as long established minorities, who are a growing segment of the population, particularly in the Belfast area. During my first visit to Belfast earlier this year, I met with the Director of the Northern Ireland Council on Ethnic Minorities to discuss this issue and to encourage more attention to this problem by law-enforcement authorities.

Gauging Success
How is the PSNI coping with these challenges and with the reform program? By the standards established in the Patten Report, our view is that the PSNI is performing at a high level. I base this conclusion on numerous factors. First, the evaluations provided regularly by the Office of the Oversight Commissioner, headed by Tom Constantine. With your permission, Mr. Chairman, I would like to quote at some length from a statement the Oversight Commission made in December. Commenting on his 44 months of work in Northern Ireland, Mr. Constantine stated:

Areas where excellent progress has been made include a human rights-based approach to policing, a sophisticated and transparent system of accountability, the establishment of District Command Units and District Policing Partnerships, improved methods of public order policing, the creation of a more representative workforce marked by the significant increase in the number of police recruits from the Catholic community, and the early completion of recommendations pertaining to changes to the name, badge and uniform. In addition, with the support of the Policing Board, the District Command Units and the District Policing Partnerships, the Police Service has initiated a crucial strategy which has seen the devolution of decision making authority to a cadre of talented and dedicated District Commanders, which in turn supports the Police Service's new philosophy of policing with the community.

Mr. Constantine’s overall conclusion is that the PSNI is making excellent progress in implementing the program of change mandated by the Patten Report.

A second reason for our positive evaluation is that public attitudes towards the police have improved in the years since the establishment of the PSNI in 2001. In the late 1990’s, Catholic confidence in the police, then known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, was low. Fewer than one-third of Catholics believed that the RUC treated the two communities in Northern Ireland equally. In surveys conducted last year, over half of Catholic respondents now express confidence in the PSNI and believe the police treat the two communities on an equal basis. Unfortunately, the data still show a gap in the perceptions of the two communities towards the police, but the trends are moving in a positive direction. The new leadership, the recruitment from the Catholic community, the accountability mechanisms and the focus on community policing are clearly changing the nature of the relationship between the police and the citizens they serve.

A third indicator of the PSNI’s success is its effectiveness. According to police data, this year has seen reductions in burglaries and vehicle crime as well as an increase in the number of drug seizures. While Northern Ireland is dealing with some unique post-conflict problems, its overall crime rate increasingly resembles the profile of other regions of the UK and Ireland.

Continuing Concerns
We have continuing concerns about some elements of the reform process. The Oversight Commissioner has pointed out deficiencies, such as delays in completely reforming the “Special Branch” division of the PSNI. Although no one doubts the need of any Western police force to properly gather and properly use intelligence, the role of Special Branch in fighting terrorism during the Troubles and the perception that this unit operated as a “force within a force” makes this reform particularly important for gaining confidence within the nationalist community. The Patten Report also stressed that in a post-conflict environment the skills of a reformed Special Branch should be put to use in fighting organized crime and narcotics trafficking. Implementing the Patten Report’s recommendations on Special Branch should be a top priority. I think it important to note, however, that Special Branch is already under new management and important changes in how intelligence is managed and employed have been introduced. The new head of Special Branch is FBI National Academy graduate Maggie Hunter, who was in charge of Belfast last summer, the quietest in three decades, and as the Patten recommended, Special Branch has been brought under the PSNI’s Crime Branch.

Another area of concern is the lack of progress in promoting secondments of officers from the Republic of Ireland’s police force, the Garda, to serve in the PSNI. Such placements would arguably help forces in both jurisdictions fight emerging cross-border threats, which include smuggling, distribution of counterfeit goods and property theft.

Other difficulties in policing are attributable to external factors. The fact that Sinn Fein, which is now the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, has refused to join the policing institutions has handicapped the effectiveness of the PSNI. In this respect I would point out to the Commission that the Patten Report made recommendations not only to the government; it also recommended that parties and other elements of civil society support the new beginning to policing, encourage the community to cooperate with the police and urge young people to consider joining. The Social Democratic and Labor Party, the Catholic Church, the Government of Ireland and the Gaelic Athletic Association have all accepted the challenge of the Patten Report and are playing a positive role. Sinn Fein’s continued opposition has held back progress. While we understand Sinn Fein’s view that further work is needed to fully realize the vision of the Patten Report, we firmly believe that Sinn Fein should do that work from the inside, by taking up its seats on the Policing Board and influencing the future of policing from within. As a first step, I would encourage the Sinn Fein leadership to meet with the Chief Constable to begin a constructive dialogue on policing, with a view to having Sinn Fein join the Policing Board.

Another factor hindering effective policing is attempts to dissuade participation in policing by physical intimidation. Again I refer to Tom Constantine’s December report, in which he notes that the clearest examples of intimidation “are the attempts to use force and violence to deter citizens from becoming police officers, members of the Policing Board or the District Policing Partnerships. Equally destructive to the concept of policing with the community is a climate of vigilante justice, as evidenced by punishment shootings, punishment beatings and, in some cases, brutal executions.” Thankfully, civic leaders such as Policing Board Vice Chairman Denis Bradley and members of the new District Policing Partnerships across Northern Ireland have not backed down in the face of thuggish attempts at bullying them and their families.

U.S. Role
Mr. Chairman, American involvement in the process of change in Northern Ireland policing has been extensive. In my remaining time I would like to recognize some of the individuals who have made contributions and discuss some of the programs the Administration is supporting. Two American criminal justice experts, Kathleen O’Toole and Gerard Lynch, served on the Patten Commission, which spent over one year preparing a reform blueprint that is now widely recognized as the gold standard for modern, accountable policing practice. I have already cited the work of former DEA Director Tom Constantine; he deserves our thanks for his service as Oversight Commissioner, playing a critical role in measuring the PSNI’s performance against the yardstick of Patten.

Recognizing the pivotal importance of police reform in Northern Ireland’s transition to normalcy, the State Department has devoted considerable time and resources to sharing American experience on policing with the people of Northern Ireland. Members of Congress have been forthcoming with their support for these efforts. In 2001, restrictions were lifted on FBI training for the PSNI. Since then, two officers have received training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, and Chief Constable Hugh Orde begins executive training there this month.

Exchange programs have been the principal vehicle for transferring knowledge and experience on policing between the United States and Northern Ireland. In addition to the FBI training, in the last few years we have sponsored eight exchange programs designed to work with the PSNI, its oversight bodies and communities in Northern Ireland on community policing and effective accountability of the police.

We have seen an excellent return on this investment:

  • Policing Board members credit a visit to New York and Washington in late 2001 as helping them establish their expertise and to develop a common civic vision. This proved invaluable as they faced several controversial issues in early 2002.
  • We have received excellent support from the chiefs of the New York and Boston police departments, both of whom have visited Belfast. American community workers have also been generous with their time.
  • Our policing experts have spent several days with members of the nationalist, republican and loyalist communities in Northern Ireland to exchange views and experiences on issues of community policing and accountability. In some cases, American specialists have had unique opportunities to bridge gaps in perceptions that exist on the ground in Northern Ireland.
After seeing the impact of the Policing Board programs, members of Congress urged us to put together a similar program for the newly formed District Policing Partnerships. We are supporting this request with the cooperation of Boston College, which offered to use some of its earmarked money to run an exchange program for DPPs this past September.

As we move ahead, I look forward to working with you, Mr. Chairman, to continue the Bush Administration’s sustained support to the police-reform effort in Northern Ireland. I also want to underscore the Administration’s overall commitment to Northern Ireland. Our role continues to be that of honest broker, impartial advisor and strong advocate for the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. With this in mind, I will be conducting consultations with the political parties and the governments this week to encourage progress in the on-going Review of the Agreement. I will return to Belfast next month and again in June to continue this work and will be available whenever needed to support the governments and the parties as they seek ways to overcome the current challenges.

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