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Losing Their Marbles
Police forces are dangerously out of touch with the public they serve
Eamonn McCann, 15 Dec 2000
Do children still shout "Squarence!"? Will we shout "Squarence!" in 2001?
You could only shout "squarence" once in a marbles game in my youth. And then only if your opponent hadn't spotted the chance first and shouted, preemptively, "No squarence!"
Squarence entitled you to move your marble round in an arc of 90 degrees so as to present a different pattern of targets to pick off. An impossible situation would suddenly offer new options.
Squarence might help us see policing in a more hopeful perspective.
We began 2000 with policing in mind. Concern over the implementation of the Patten Report was a big factor in the Provos' balking on decommissioning. Which put Trimble under pressure, which in turn prompted Mandleson to pull the plug on the Stormont Executive.
The Executive was resurrected at Hillsborough in May when Blair undertook to put the process back on track and the Provos responded by re-engaging with the decommissioning body.
That deal disintegrated when the Police Bill brought to parliament fell short of what Patten had recommended. The Provo commitment on decommissioning was effectively ditched. Trimble retaliated by banning Sinn Fein ministers from cross-border gatherings.
Which is how we got here. At year's end, the impasse over policing remains the biggest single obstacle to consolidation of the Agreement as a whole.
Mandleson says that irrespective of what was promised or presumed in the past, if he moves another inch now to meet Nationalist demands he will have gone beyond the limit of what Unionists can live with. An impossible situation.
What we need here is squarence.
The RUC was a key element in the machinery of the Orange State. An end to State sectarianism has to spell the end of the RUC. But this doesn't mean merely making the police less Orange and more Green.
In The Guardian in November, Patten Commission member Clifford Shearing concurred with Northern Nationalists that Mandleson's Bill gutted what Patten had prescribed. But Shearing didn t major on the name, the badge or the flying of flags, or on the issues which signify which community's identity the police force reflects.
His article focussed on Patten's proposals for putting the police under a degree of civilian control.
Patten wanted a policing board with power to command reports from the chief constable on why and how any operation had been carried out. Mandleson s Bill allows the police chief to refer every such request to the Secretary of State "if it appears that (such a report) would, or would be likely to, prejudice the prevention or detection of crime or apprehension or prosecution of offenders".
The Ronnie Flanagans of the future will be able to stymie the policing board any time they see fit.
District policing partnership boards, designed to provide an element of local control, have likewise had their functions so diluted no Nationalist could credibly swallow them.
The police will remain unaccountable, a law unto themselves.
But unaccountable cops aren t specific to the North. Neither the Gardam nor the British police are answerable to civilian society.
The Garda complaints body is an unfunny joke. RTE s Primetime reported during the year on lawyers advising clients against making complaints because the only likely result is that the cops will step up harrassment.
And, of course, there was no policing board to look into the killing of John Carthy at Abbeylara in April of 2000.
In the 1990s, 22 people died in dubious circumstances in British police stations. In only two cases, did court proceedings follow. No cop has done a day inside as a result.
During the year, I spoke with Jim Stanley at a meeting in Belfast and wrote here and elsewhere about his brother, Harry. In September last year, Harry, from Hackney in east London, was walking home on a Sunday afternoon carrying a plastic bag containing the leg of a coffee table which he'd just collected from a repair shop. Some idiot phoned the police and reported seeing a man with what might be a gun. Within minutes, a car-load of armed police screeched to a halt 20 yards behind Harry. As he turned around, they shot him dead.
There is no civilian police-board for the Stanley family to appeal to, and no proposal for one.
Nationalist parties say they want a "police service" which people in the Bogside or Ballymurphy will wave cheerily to as they amble around the area, regard as "their own", go to for help when in trouble, cooperate with as they pursue local people suspected of crime.
Where is the model for such a police service to be found? New York? Dublin? Pretoria? London?
No police force in a class-divided society exists to vindicate the interests of the mass of the people. The core function of the police is to defend the existing order, to hold the line against any upsurge from below. It is for this reason that ruling classes everywhere are against the police being subject to democratic scrutiny.
Patten went much further than the existing authorities in Britain or Southern Ireland would contemplate for their own jurisdictions because he recognised the lynchpin role the police had played in the dysfunctional society he was trying to help make viable.
But the most important effect of his proposed changes wouldn t be to adjust the colour-contrast in the picture of Northern policing, to fade the Orange and enhance the Green. What's crucial is that Patten, fully implemented, would give citizens of whatever persuasion a modicum of redress against police violence and repression.
What people in the South and in Britain who want to see an end to the Northern conflict could most usefully say on policing is: us too. The same rights for the people of Dublin and London as they desire for the people of Belfast.
Looked at from the angle of conventional commentary, the Shankill has an entirely different view of the police from that of the Falls.
Take squarence, and the Shankill sees the RUC much as Darndale sees the guards.
A move towards accountability across the island, and in Britain, wouldn't impact on the North as a blow to the interests of one community and a boost to the other.
The way to sort out the sectarian problem in the North is not to see the problem solely in Northern or sectarian terms.
At the end of the first year of the bright new millennium, take squarence.