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High level of approval of policing among Protestants thanks to deals over marches

Survey shows high level of approval of policing among majority in community thanks to deals over marches.

By Henry McDonald

Published 08/11/2016

Bandsmen returning along the Crumlin Road last month, bringing to an end a long-running dispute
Bandsmen returning along the Crumlin Road last month, bringing to an end a long-running dispute
Police apologised after a child was allegedly sprayed with CS gas during a disturbance on the Ormeau Road following a parade last March

There is a policing paradox on this island in relation to the performances and reputation of the two forces in charge of law and order.

On the one hand, the Police Service of Northern Ireland is enjoying high levels of public satisfaction, according to the latest Policing Board opinion poll. The headline figure is that 88% of the population in the north have either total, or some degree of, confidence in the PSNI.

Just over 90% of respondents in the survey indicated they feel safe due to the proper policing of their communities, while 75% of those questioned felt that the PSNI "are doing either a very good, or a fairly good, job".

One of the most interesting figures to emerge from the survey, which was carried out in April this year for the board, is that Protestant support for the PSNI has actually increased. It has grown from 88% in January 2015 to 92% in April 2016. Why is this somewhat surprising?

If you consider unionist complaints regarding the PSNI directly linked to the way parading and the marching season has been policed, you could be forgiven for expecting Protestant backing for the PSNI to fall.

There was that controversy more than a year ago, when a young boy in a loyalist band was pepper-sprayed for straying off-route along Belfast's Ormeau Road at a time when the PSNI was accused of adopting an ostrich-like attitude to anti-social thuggery in Belfast's Holyland district; the allegation being that the police were more reluctant to tackle head-on student-related violence, because those behind it were Catholic and middle-class.

Such controversies, it seems, have not had an adverse impact on Protestant backing for the PSNI and, given the recent deals in north Belfast that appear to have taken the sting out of the Ardoyne/Woodvale parades dispute, you would expect there will be even fewer controversies in which the PSNI will be caught up in over the next few marching seasons. (Although, when it comes to the streets of Northern Ireland and especially along its sectarian faultlines, you can never ever say never again).

On the key question of the PSNI treating all citizens fairly, 66% of Catholics are "very/fairly satisfied" with the police, while another 21% are in the middle. Only 11% of Catholics are either "fairly/very dissatisfied" with the PSNI.

This latter figure - of just over 10% - mirrors what appears to be the level of support republican dissidents are enjoying in some working-class nationalist communities of late. It is, of course, a worrying figure, in that it indicates there is still a support pool - albeit patchy and geographically scattered - for dissident republicans and their vehement opposition to the PSNI and the justice system.

Yet, in the wider historical context, the levels of satisfaction within the Catholic community towards the PSNI still mark a sea-change in public attitudes within Northern Ireland.

Whereas a large proportion of Catholics and nationalists (though certainly not all) regarded the RUC as a 100% unionist force (a view held even by those who opposed the violence of the Provisional IRA), the PSNI is still clearly winning the 21st century battle for hearts and minds in the north of Ireland. Although the recalcitrant republicans will bite back that it is not the PSNI which has primacy when it comes to security policy in Northern Ireland; that remains in the hands of MI5 based at its regional HQ in Holywood.

Nonetheless, contrast this relatively good news for the PSNI and the Policing Board with the state of play regarding the police south of the border.

At present, you have a force whose rank-and-file members, under the auspices of the Garda Representative Association (GRA), have just pulled back from the brink of a national policing strike.

The bitterness, resentment and anger over frozen wages and expenses - a hangover from the recession - has yet to burn out. There are still threats from the GRA that another unprecedented strike could take place.

Further up the ladder, there is legal warfare within the Garda high command, with one deputy commissioner currently taking action in the courts against his boss, Maureen O'Sullivan, the Garda chief commissioner.

Again, we are in uncharted territory here, with the highly unusual sight of a deputy commissioner trying to sue the most senior Garda officer in the state. In addition, a former Garda Press officer is taking another case against the chief commissioner over his sacking in relation to briefings he allegedly gave to journalists.

Add to the above the plight of Garda whistleblowers, who have made serious allegations of cover-ups and bullying in the force to the Republic's Garda ombudsman's office.

In all this mix, you have a police force which can only be described as dysfunctional and where morale from the officer on the beat upwards to senior commanders is at a very low point.

The irony about all of these troubles besetting An Garda Siochana is that there is one area of policing where the force has been hugely successful: the battle to counter ongoing dissident republican violence.

Senior PSNI and British security officials will happily admit that much of the intelligence that has been used to thwart numerous New IRA, Continuity IRA and Oghlaigh na hEireann attacks has flowed from south of the border.

Garda intelligence, from both its informers and the use of electronic surveillance, has played a vital role in preventing terrorist sorties and saving lives in Northern Ireland.

As well as dealing with an ongoing gangland war between the Kinahan cartel and the Gerry Hutch gang, that has stretched from north Dublin to Spain, the Garda's crime and security officers have been extremely active in the frontline against militant dissident republicanism for more than a decade since these groups re-emerged from the post-Omagh bombing shadows.

Much of these counter-terrorist operations also take place in the shadows about which the public on both sides of the border know very little about - for the obvious security reasons.

Which is why, despite all the scandals, the threatened strikes, the legal battles in Dublin courts, the Garda won't get the credit for something so essential to the safety and well-being of every citizen on this island.

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