POLITICS, POLICING and the PEACE – three legs on a broken stool – By Brian Rowan 

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This week, the date we remember is the 20th anniversary of the PSNI.

Yet, to look at policing in isolation, is to ignore the other parts of the broken stool.

Nothing here stands alone.

The ‘New’ that we are trying to build is on top of the ‘Old’ of yesteryear.

To quote the Queen’s University academic Dr Joanne Murphy “we are living with ghosts” – often “pulled back to what are environments of huge pain”.

She was chatting with me in an interview for the UTV View From Stormont programme.

So, also, was the assistant chief constable Una Jennings, now serving with Cheshire Police.

Among, the first recruits to the PSNI those 20 years ago, she speaks today about the “drip feed of some of the historical investigations, which, I think, are absolutely right and proper, but make it very hard for people to differentiate between old policing and new policing”.

For the police of 2021, the Past is still a swamp – a place resulting from political failure to find some process and some way into the present and towards the future.

Another assistant chief constable Tim Mairs – now serving in Scotland – describes a ‘mass grave’. He also stepped into policing in the era beyond the RUC, and like Una Jennings, for now, he has stepped out of this place.

“I think that many of the challenges still come from the unresolved issues of the Past,” he told me – “and those are not just how we deal  with the legacy of the conflict of the past, but issues like flags and emblems, bonfires, parading.

“These are all issues that habitually cause challenges for policing where policing is required to step into that space but, actually, where many of the solutions don’t sit with the police service.”

What have we learned in the past 20-plus years?

The pathway to the PSNI in November 2001 came from the Patten Report of sweeping reforms two years previously. It highlighted the need of “depoliticisation”.

“We’ve far from achieved that and, I think, recently, we’ve seen politics brought into policing decisions more than ever,” the chair of the Police Federation Mark Lindsay commented.

Politics is a part of everything here.

Remember back to the period of the Patten proposals in 1999. Politics was in the trenches – the battles then over guns and government and the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

I said recently, that those trenches – if not as deep – are still there today.

Politics is on another walk to the edge – the huffing and puffing again with the threat that Stormont might be blown down.

If it is, then, it should be finished. We should move to the conversation of what next.

Where is the Policing Board in today’s debates and discussions?

What has it done to advance the conversation on the Past and to help move things not just into the present but towards the future?

The Policing Board should be about much more than the politicians that sit on it.

When I think of it today, I think of the almost anonymous Police Authority in the period before Patten.

Can we have new policing with MI5?

These are questions that we are avoiding.

The legacy conversation will get uglier before it gets better.

I still believe we need an amnesty or a statute of limitations to open out an information process, but I believe the UK Government shaped proposals are about closing down such a process – controlling it and limiting its detail.

I also believe that before any information process is established we should know what to expect in terms of contributions from all sides, including the IRA and the loyalist organisations.

To discuss 20 years of the PSNI outside the frame of failures in politics and on the Past, is to miss the point.

In my report for View From Stormont a few days ago, I also spoke with a young inspector – Roisin Brown, who described the ‘new beginning’ in the context of a still fragile peace and division within society.

Patten has been more of a long beginning than a new beginning – the Past still with us, a conversation too often dominated by politics and a fight for yesteryear rather than for tomorrow.

When will we ever learn?

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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. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie