Devolution of policing is no solution to a sectarian state

Darren C – UCD FRS

As devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly threatens to become a reality, Darren Cogavin looks at the real face of policing in Britain’s oldest colony. This article appears in the November issue of Workers Power

For the past two decades, most of John Brady’s life was spent in prison as a result of his involvement in republican activity. Following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), Brady joined many other veteran republicans in denouncing Sinn Fein’s de facto surrender to the British state. The deep demoralisation of former volunteers opposed to the GFA has been compounded by a systematic campaign of harassment, persecution and victimisation by security forces in the North.

Brady was on weekend release from Maghaberry Prison, where he had been incarcerated for the past six years although convicted of nothing, when he was again arrested by the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI) following a domestic dispute. He was discovered dead in his cell less than 24 hours later. The PSNI claimed he took his own life even though his solicitor had informed his family that he would be released shortly – within an hour of the solicitor’s phone call, Brady was dead.

Brady’s tragic death once more shines a spotlight on the colonial and nefarious nature of policing in the North. Since Sinn Fein appointed representatives to the crown constabulary’s Policing Board in 2007, republicans have pointed to the increased instances of harassment by the PSNI. Stop and search powers are routinely used to intimidate the spouses and children of republicans. Republican opponents of the GFA continue to experience arbitrary arrest and detention without trial. These tactics, redolent of the hated Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), are clearly designed to instil fear and paranoia within nationalist communities.

Sectarian police force

The façade of cross-community policing – masking British repression and injustice – came tumbling down last July. When nationalist residents from Ardoyne organised a peaceful protest against the Orange Order bulldozing down the community in a nakedly sectarian and triumphalist fashion, the PSNI responded by corralling protestors in the face of 300 drunken loyalists singing sectarian party songs. When Ardoyne youth organised and resisted the heavy-handed tactics of the PSNI, they were attacked with baton charges, water cannon and plastic bullets. It’s little wonder then that graffiti appeared declaring “PSNI – 17% Catholic. 100% Unionist”.

The policing debate continues to reveal profound divisions within the republican movement. On the one hand there is Sinn Fein, seduced by the power, status and individual gain awarded to them by British imperialism in return for their shameful acceptance of the unionist veto, repressive police structures and neoliberal exploitation. Their slavish implementation of cutbacks and divergence from left republican rhetoric has disillusioned many of their supporters, North and South, and a number of councillors have already resigned.

On the other hand there is the nationalist working class, condemned to deepening social and economic injustice. In marginalised areas like Ardoyne, the community refuses to support the police. Instead these areas are self-policed by groups like Concerned Families against Drugs (CFAD), who perform a dual role confronting local drug pushers and highlighting the lack of jobs, youth facilities and treatment services in the area. Groups on the republican fringe – like the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), 32 County Sovereign Movement (32CSM) and others – have modest support here.

A sectarian state

The imperialist partition of Ireland into two separate entities inflamed sectarianism, maintaining the division between the Catholic and Protestant working class and making it easier to push forward the continued exploitation of all workers. The sectarian nature of the Orange statelet is underlined by a shocking statistic – some 60 per cent of applicants for social housing in Northern Ireland are Catholic and 40 per cent Protestant, yet 60 per cent of allocations go to Protestants. Some 90 per cent of social housing estates in the North are segregated, where a large number of “peace lines” (high walls and barbed wire) continue to separate workers on both sides of the divide.

The right-wing austerity measures of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) are designed to placate foreign investors and impose the burden of the economic crisis on the working class. A leaked memo from Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Finance Minister, revealed that £200 million will slashed from current expenditure, as well as another £172 million to be cut from capital expenditure, including schools and hospitals.

A recent update of the ‘Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Northern Ireland’ report in September also highlighted the tangible increase in social inequality since the global recession began. It revealed that there has been a steep rise in house repossession over the last two years while the proportion of working-age adults not in paid work has risen to 34 per cent. On top of this, 52,600 (12 per cent) of children in the North are living in conditions described as “absolute poverty”.

Devolution of policing

Ten years since the GFA and Sinn Fein is still waiting for the transfer of policing powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Its DUP partners have stalled and prevaricated at every turn. In so doing they have extracted up to £1 billion from the British government to increase compensation for ex-RUC hearing losses, retention of weapons for ex-RUC and army personnel, retaining the RUC reserve with its overwhelming Protestant composition, removing restrictions on Orange parades, etc. Gerry Adams only complained about one of these – the abolition of the Parades Commission!

Sinn Fein hails every concession to Unionism as a victory. Every concession is made in the belief that the greater good is to preserve the power sharing government. Sinn Fein is trapped into accepting the Unionist veto on any change to the sectarian and privileged nature of the Orange state.

The devolution of policing is not making the police force – or the state – more democratic. Workers must look to their own strength to police their communities. We already have the tradition of the Citizen’s Defence Committees in Belfast and Derry of the 1970’s and of course James Connolly’s Irish Citizens’ Army, which developed to defend workers’ picket lines.

This is necessary, not only against sectarian attacks from Orange bigots, but against PSNI incursions too. It needs to be a mass force, drawing in and training the youth, guarding and aiding the growth of a mass movement for equal rights, immediate social and economic demands, such as jobs and decent housing for all, and crucially for a united workers republic of Ireland.

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