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Ending Paramilitary Punishment Violence in Northern Ireland

In November of last year I blogged about the resurgence of paramilitary punishment violence in Northern Ireland and called for a community solution to what many believe is a community problem. Support for punishment violence was linked to the disillusionment that many members of the community were experiencing with post-conflict Northern Ireland and the perceived rise in violent crime and anti-social behaviour. I argued that community discord provides dissident groups with support for their brand of paramilitary policing which then places them in a position of strength from which they can pursue a variety of illegal activities. In this blog, I will make the case that the only way that Northern Ireland can be rid of paramilitary punishment attacks is if there is a comprehensive re-think of community policing in Northern Ireland.

The continuing dissident threat has placed a shadow over the everyday activities of the PSNI and has further challenged their ability to provide a ‘normal’ brand of policing in Northern Ireland. As 2008 came to a close the situation appeared to be escalating as death threats against members of District Police Partnerships and the Policing board were extended to include any nationalist community organisations that were seen to be working in partnership with the PSNI. A new, confident brand of dissident republicanism appeared to be contemplating ever more ambitious attacks on officers of the reformed police service.

At the end of last week the situation appeared to improve when the threat against community-based restorative justice group CRJ was removed in a statement to the Irish News given by the group using the name Oglaigh na h Eireann. The statement claimed that although the efforts of CRJ have been negated by the imposition of paramilitary policing, CRJ are not ‘an enemy’ of Oglaigh na hEireann and they encourage CRJ to “explore ways to make communities safer”. Although the statement was good news for CRJ, it did little to build expectations of a softening in dissident republican attitudes to punishment violence. A view that was confirmed by the punishment style shooting of a 21 year old man in the Lenadoon area of West Belfast last week and the exiling of a 14 year-old boy both by Oglaigh na hEireann.

The case of the 14 year-old does speak volumes however in relation to the balancing act that dissident groups must adhere to in order to maintain their community support. Had the youth been 17 or 18, the exiling would probably have attracted less attention from the community. However, as the youth was only 14 years old, the exiling has attracted the widespread concern and anger of community members and political representatives and led to significant negative reporting in the local and national media. This reaction suggests that support for paramilitary policing is fragile at best, and should a credible alternative to this brand of policing be achieved, there is a real prospect that the community support that dissidents rely upon could quickly melt away.

If community members are to be convinced that crime and anti-social behaviour is actually improving significantly, the PSNI must build on the great strides they have made and move towards an effective community-policing model. The Patten commission delivered a blueprint for policing in Northern Ireland that continues to be internationally recognised as the most effective policing model yet devised. It is testament to the strength of the structures in place within the PSNI and their willingness to complete reform that almost every Patten recommendation has been implemented. However, the only recommendation of note that is remaining is Patten recommendation 44, which states that ‘policing with the community should be the core function of the police service’.

Writing on this issue, University of Ulster academic John Topping suggests that the inability of the PSNI to implement recommendation 44 can be linked to institutional inertia within the service which has been exacerbated by a reluctance to improve engagement and utilization of Northern Ireland’s diverse community infrastructures. Although the issue of community has held a prominent position in Northern Ireland policing policy, each flagship community initiative has been open to criticism.

For example, the District Policing Partnerships (DPP’s) have suffered from under representation of nationalist communities (largely due to the five years that the predominant nationalist political party Sinn Fein spent in self exclusion from the policing structures) and in most cases are dominated by middle-class Protestants and plagued by poor attendances.

The NIO Community Safety Unit (CSU) claims responsibility for a 15% reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour since its conception five years ago and has set up community safety partnerships in an attempt to give communities a say in how community safety should be deployed. However, the CSU has attracted criticism from community groups for utilising an array of external statutory and professional agencies that have taken responsibility for crime and anti-social behaviour away from communities and led to duplicated services at a considerable cost to the taxpayer.

Finally and most positively, has been the contribution of the Neighbourhood Policing Teams (NPT’s) which in the short time they have existed have utilised their newfound familiarity with communities to develop a reputation for building effective community partnerships and providing a friendly and professional service. The success of the NPT’s, however, has only highlighted the limitations of the often impersonal ‘rapid response’ style of policing that is still the predominant form of policing in Northern Ireland. For example, when I interviewed a teenager from the Twinbrook area of West Belfast he professed to frustration with the style of policing in his area:

“A police car was parked up the other night for nearly four hours. They sat with the engine running and the windows wound up and never got out to talk to anyone. I don’t blame them I suppose as if they did get out they would get abuse from everyone, but they should at least try.”

It is not just with rapid response policing that there is frustration. There is anecdotal evidence that suggests there is often disconnect in attitudes between the main stream PSNI and NPT’s which can lead to the NPT’s becoming hampered in providing the most effective service for members of  the community. Moreover, the institutional inability to make the NPT’s central to police interventions ensures that the PSNI are often failing to take advantage of the wealth of local knowledge already accumulated by the NPT’s.

Undoubtedly there remains a degree of support for punishment attacks among many members of communities in Northern Ireland ensuring that that the harming of troubled young people remains one of the last throwbacks to Northern Irelands violent past. To combat this tolerance there needs to be a concerted attempt to challenge the conception that punishment violence is the only prevention for crime and antisocial behaviour. 

I share the view that the community policing model utilised by the Neighbourhood policing teams needs to be extended to the entire PSNI so that the people of Northern Ireland can enjoy a police service which employs community policing as its core function. I believe that the subsequent confidence that these measures provide, will remove the oxygen of community support for paramilitary punishment attacks and end this vile practice for good.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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