Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 17 April 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Our leaders have failed us so Haass must fill vacuum

Politicians' silence over a proposed moratorium on contentious parades leaves the US special envoy with his work cut out, writes Terry Spence

General view of loyalists protesting against republicans taking part in the anti-internment  march as it passes Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre
General view of loyalists protesting against republicans taking part in the anti-internment march as it passes Royal Avenue in Belfast city centre

From Boston to Brisbane, people the world over were last week treated to an appalling view of an unreformed, sectarian Northern Ireland fighting with each other and the police in Belfast city centre.

Worse than that, many of the 10,000 or so visitors and competitors from all over the globe attending the World Police and Fire Games in Belfast had a grandstand view from their hospitality marquees in Custom House Square of just how little Northern Ireland has progressed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement more than 15 years ago.

If what we are witnessing on the streets of Belfast is, in fact, the violent articulation of the political frustrations of minority groups from both sides of the community, then serious questions indeed need to be asked about community progress in Northern Ireland.

The truly obscene price being paid for failure is the injury toll among PSNI officers. More than 520 officers since last July; 64 since last Thursday alone.

From the perspective of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland, the summer has demonstrated beyond serious, credible challenge that the PSNI is at least 1,000 officers short.

The need for 1,000 officers to come from other UK forces is indisputable proof that we are an embarrassingly under-resourced police force.

'Mutual aid' – as the arrangement is known – was expected for the G8 summit, but it also came to our rescue for the Twelfth celebration parades.

The whingeing from mainland chief constables and their respective police and crime commissioners that they were sending officers whom they could ill-afford suggests that they would not like this to become a habit – given the reductions in their own force numbers.

We urgently need a reappraisal of the societal and political challenges facing Northern Ireland if we are to prevent an annual near-collapse in law and order here.

Firstly, the PSNI, the Department of Justice, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Treasury need to face up to the inescapable fact that our police service is being physically exhausted through injury and burn-out, because it has been foolishly run down through years of groundless political optimism.

Secondly, our politicians need to give leadership which condemns violence without weasel words undermining their sincerity, because of their fear of alienating a minority of their electoral support.

Thirdly, the courts need to follow the lead in England, where rioters, on conviction, get sent to prison for several years. The leniency of our judicial system has precious little deterrent effect.

Until such times as there is a more realistic understanding of the extent that past politics and sectarianism continue to poison our communities, the PSNI will never be able to focus on the policing priorities which a normal society takes for granted.

The politicians, community groups and the loyal orders now need to rethink what kind of leadership they are giving the people of Northern Ireland if they are to regain both local and international respect.

The PSNI needs to reconsider its resources and to understand how its frontline officers want to get back to such activity as community policing, which is practically non-existent.

The Police Federation for Northern Ireland has suggested a moratorium on contentious parades and demonstrations.

The deafening silence, or lack of any ideas, from political leaders and government ministers has been telling.

Richard Haass, the US special envoy, has an Olympian task on his hands.

Terry Spence is chairman of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland