Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

How can new PSNI Chief Constable take control without being pulled back into the past?

A change of Chief Constable cannot alone deliver new-style policing. Only fresh realism at Stormont and on the streets will succeed where Matt Baggott didn't. Brian Rowan reports

Rioting in Belfast during the summer
Rioting in Belfast during the summer

For much more than a decade now, new policing has been a kind of Holy Grail within the peace process; it is something that has still to be fully explored and discovered.

We know what it looks like, or should look like, but we haven't quite seen, or found, it yet.

It gets lost behind shields, in the faces that have to be protected under riot helmets, when we see police officers still carrying guns, or travelling in armoured vehicles.

The reality is you can't have new policing until you have a new Northern Ireland, new attitudes, new politics at Stormont and a new mood on the ground.

All of those things are a work-in-progress. So, new policing is not about a new chief constable. And it is not just about the police; a lot depends on politics and politicians and people in the many different parts and corners of this place.

We still have contested ground a million miles removed from what shared space should look like.

There is a continuing dissident republican threat and a street mood in parts of the loyalist community stirred up for political purposes and ambition using the slogan of cultural war.

And, in that mood, we have heard the charge of police brutality. Just look at Kiev and the battle images from there and then think about how shallow and pathetic and how easily spoken and unchallenged the cry of heavy-handed policing here has become.

In the fallout from the City Hall flag vote and in continuing marching disputes, the police have had to hold different lines. At times, they became part of the problem; part of a situation in which a very small tail wagged a much larger dog.

Their inaction on occasions gave an exaggerated sense of authority and influence to unelected forces.

Policing was undermined as well as the rulings of the Parades Commission and politics was damaged.

Indeed, in some situations, politicians have stood like stuffed puppets afraid to annoy the crowd and afraid of losing a vote.

They have become prisoners in the street-play and part of the problem.

And, as other services struggle financially, policing money is being poured down the drain. Millions and millions of pounds are being spent holding those lines.

The real problem is political and community failure and, in such circumstances, you can change policing, but you cannot make it into something that is truly new.

Of course, it is different. The security picture has changed dramatically from the days of thousands of soldiers on the streets, the military watchtowers and all of the weaponry that came with the Army.

Today's marching rows are not on the scale of Drumcree and the republican dissidents do not have the wherewithal of the IRA in terms of firepower. But while there is a danger of a shot being fired – or of an exploding bomb – then in some places the idea of what Chief Constable Matt Baggott calls "personal policing" will have to wait.

And in those situations where officers in riot kit have to stand as human walls between parade and protest, there will always be a distance between policing and the people.

It's too easy to blame the 'cops'. All of this asks for a bigger and a more thinking response.

Unless a process is agreed, policing in the here and now is always going to be pulled back into the past.

Politicians meet again today as part of the continuing leaders' talks on the Haass/O'Sullivan initiative.

Recently, a paper from the Department of Justice was introduced into those talks, making the argument for the Haass-proposed historical investigations unit to be established now and also raising the possibility of a new legacy inquests unit.

But, in those talks, the widest gap is still on the parades issue and, in that political stand-off, the street mess is left to the police.

So, when Matt Baggott leaves the top policing post, possibly before the main summer marching season, the issue of contested street parades will still be there and festering; so, too, the continuing row over flags and identity.

The dissidents are not just going to go away. That is going to require a talking initiative within the republican community that may, or may not, produce results.

These are the realities of an unfinished and incomplete peace and politics; things that stand in the way of new policing.

George Hamilton is being talked about as the likely new chief constable, as the man who will follow in the line after Sir Ronnie Flanagan, Sir Hugh Orde and Matt Baggott. But a new name cannot deliver new policing.

Yes, the next chief constable can change things.

But there is a much bigger challenge and a much bigger question: how much do politicians and the people across the communities really want things to change?

There is not a magic wand that will deliver new policing. There is not a chief constable who can deliver it on his, or her, own.

The people can help make it possible and so, too, the politicians, but only when they stop using it as a plaything and for selfish interests.

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