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Just read paragraph 8 above. It’s from the opening remarks of Chris Patten as he delivered his Commission’s report on police reform this week twenty-years ago.

The key to change in September 1999 was the “depoliticisation of policing”.

Two decades later, that key to change remains the same.

Has policing been depoliticised? The answer is NO.

Look at the legacy process. In its design and intention, could it be any more political?

Look also at the Policing Board. Its make-up of 10 politicians and nine independent members. 

At a recent event in the Ulster University, I asked: other than sitting on its hands what that Board has done to assist the legacy conversation?

It has nodded at a process designed by political parties and governments – what we call the Stormont House Agreement. 

Listen also to the unionist arguments over the proposed Historical Investigations Unit (HIU), and to the Westminster conversation/debate on a statute of limitations. The description of a legacy agreement is fanciful. It has become another disagreement.

I was struck by a comment in the recent TEDxStormont talk given by Chief Superintendent Una Jennings – now a police commander in Rotherham.

She spoke of policing being “really tough work” – adding: “It takes all sorts, which is why we need all sorts”.

Is that what we have here? The answer is NO. 

Do all communities see themselves in the policing service or in the representation on the Policing Board? 

Again, the answer is NO.

We need to wake up, and we need to remember what Patten said about policing – that it is not just about the police.

It has been a disastrous two-and-a-half-years for politics here, and it has been a bad summer for policing, characterised by indecision.

Is there an initiative in the nationalist community to challenge the dissident threat; a leadership initiative that involves those with political, church and community influence, including the GAA. 

Communities which say they support the peace process and policing, need to do more.

On another issue, legacy is a poison; reduced by some in politics to a game of winners and losers.

The responses to the recent NIO consultation do not represent the totality of opinion here on the question of the Past. 

Recently a number of significant republican figures have said that no one – security/intelligence/republican/loyalist – should to go jail as part of any truth process here; that the emphasis should be on information, not prosecution. 

The Liverpool University Professor 

Pete Shirlow agrees: “I think it’s important that we get the truth. I don’t think we will get the truth if anybody senses that they’re going to have to serve two years in prison,” he said in a BBC interview.

“I think it’s also important to realise, that in terms of any society that leaves a conflict, there has to be a time frame,” he continued. “You can’t continue to go back  to the same issues and the same arguments.”

In that same BBC report, Jeanette Ervine, wife of the late David Ervine, commented: “That was part of the Good Friday Agreement – that the prisoners would be released. There wasn’t a clause to say when they’re 60/70-years-old, we’re going to come back and convict them.” 

We are digging the trenches of the past deeper – some in politics using the biggest shovels.

In 2019, policing and legacy both need to be depoliticised.

I was called by a unionist politician after a recent radio interview in which I argued that we need a Patten-type report on the Past – recommendations from outside of us that do not require a five-party and two-governments consensus.

That unionist politicians agreed, but was not prepared to say so publicly. There are politicians who have become hostages to set positions within their communities – unable or unwilling to say what they really think the approach to legacy should be. 

Someone needs to step outside that circle. Policing is being destroyed by the Past and by the continuing political battles.

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process and contributed chapters to 'Reporting the Troubles' and 'Brexit and Northern Ireland: Bordering on Confusion'.

1 Comment

  1. Well said (as always), Brian… “Someone needs to step outside that circle” – I think our whole country needs to do that, or The Prophet David Irvine’s words will come back to haunt us (“those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”). Because circles have a way of coming back around, I’ll join your call for an independent review of the past, so we don’t go back THERE. There’s no perspective so clear as a fresh perspective – but where to find a post-conflict, neutral advisor for just such a process?

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