Consider this, there has not been a public meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board since December 2016. This is in spite of the sacrifices that have been made at the community, political and organisational levels over the past two decades in support of the ‘policing project,’ with the collective aim of placing ‘new policing’ at the heart of the peace process.
Ironically, whilst ‘policing reform’ has been underpinned by an assumption and belief that politics would be removed from policing, it is in fact the current political impasse that poses the greatest risk to continued progress.
Whilst our society remains in a coma like state, devoid of political leadership with its symptomatic policy paralysis, the question remains as to why the Secretary of State will not put forward legislation that would allow for the reconstitution of the policing board? Quite simply, politics in Northern Ireland is going nowhere until the numbers in Westminster change and until the dark cloud of Brexit lifts. Until such times, it would appear that the British governments’s approach to policing oversight here, which may be defined as agnostic at best, will continue to demonstrate their lack of emotional and psychological attachment to this region and in turn, the Good Friday Agreement.
In the midst of political uncertainty, we need a Policing Board now, more than ever that can hold the PSNI to account, and which can advocate for policing more generally. In its absence the issues are mounting, community and PSNI frustrations are increasing and the policing project is in danger of grinding to a shuddering halt. Issues (although not exhaustive) that require immediate, independent debate, critique and analysis include:
- Brexit– The Chief Constable has stated publically that the organisation ‘feels a little bit isolated and an orphan,’ and that he is very unclear about potential challenges with regards to European arrest warrants, border security and subsequent issues in relation to staff and resources. Therefore, the Board needs to be part of any police decision-making process. It needs to be able to scrutinize government policies and ensure local neighbourhood policing is not being detrimentally affected as a result of Brexit;
- Local Policing– The absence of a Board has meant that there has been no development, consultation or implementation of a Northern Ireland Policing Plan 2018/19. As a result, outcomes and targets have become meaningless, and the public are unable to work in partnership with the PSNI to set specific priorities. Furthermore, local accountability mechanisms have also been affected, with Policing Community Safety Partnerships unable to replace independent members;
- Legacy– The Board has not been able to formally participate in discussions about the establishment of bodies to deal with the legacy of the past in the context of the on-going consultation; despite the fact that the Board could be instrumental in aspects of any agreed delivery and implementation plan;
- PSNI Recruitment– Recently the Chief Constable reinforced the need for society to do more to encourage members of the Catholic community to join the organisation. Although figures from the most recent recruitment campaign have yet to be published, data from the previous three campaigns revealed that only 31% of applicants were from a Catholic background, with only 19% of Catholics making it through to the final merit pool. In reality, the composition of the service remains a factor, which directly affects confidence and legitimacy in the organisation; and is therefore an issue, to which the Board should be directly responding.
- Executive Action Plan for Tackling Paramilitary and Organised Crime– The Board and PCSPs are responsible (both directly and indirectly) for a number of actions in the government’s strategy, aimed at supporting communities in transition and embedding a culture of lawfulness. Yet, at present the Board are unable to formally contribute to the design, formulation or implementation of any initiatives;
- Policing Oversight– In the absence of a constituted Board the principle of democratic accountability is undermined, as there is no appropriate mechanism to hold PSNI accountable for its performance. Furthermore, the Board were unable to extend the appointment period of their Human Rights Advisor, who supported the Board in carrying out their statutory duty to monitor the PSNI compliance with the Human Rights Act;
- PSNI Personnel– At a senior level within the organisation, there is currently an acting Assistant Chief Constable, and in the near future there will be a vacancy at the Deputy Chief Constable level. At this point, there is an opportunity to look at the future direction of the organisation and consider the composition of the senior team moving forward. A fully functioning Board should assist in those discussions and try to create a more positive and constructive working environment, for the current situation is not exactly appealing to potential external candidates.
Since the collapse of devolution, policing reform and oversight have been allowed to drift – as evidence by some of the issues outlined above. As a consequence, public confidence in the PSNI has the potential to deteriorate. It is worth pointing out that the Policing Board was far from perfect prior to the political crisis, yet in many ways it represented a ‘new policing culture and environment,’ one which held the PSNI to account, and which ensured that the Chief Constable could explain his decision-making processes in a public forum.
Going back to the original question, maybe the Secretary of State is simply unable to put forward legislation because it would open the gates to other pressing issues, such as MLA pay or a compensation scheme for victims of historical institutional abuse, or alternatively, the DUP-Tory deal is guiding the approach to Northern Ireland, which is characterised by ‘whatever you do, do nothing at all’. Either way, one of the main tangible symbols of the peace process is being damaged, and all of the good will and positivity associated with the process of policing reform is diminishing.