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The transformation of Policing in Northern Ireland: understanding the dynamics and potential lessons

John Doyle
Dublin City University
John Doyle
Dublin City University
Open Panel

Abstract

The Northern Ireland conflict was typical of many others in that the community was highly polarised on issues of policing in addition to wider political issues. On the one hand (for the British government and unionists in Northern Ireland), the police were their defenders, who had guarded them against a terrorist insurgency. For Irish nationalists, on the other hand, even those who had strongly opposed the IRA, the police were part of the problem; they were an unrepresentative and unsupported force with a poor human-rights record who could not provide a normal post-conflict policing service. The transformation of policing in Northern Ireland, was one of the most controversial aspects of the peace process but nonetheless has seen an evolution from absolute stalemate during post-ceasefire talks in 1998, to a Report from an International Commission (the Patten Commission) to an agreement between the parties in 2010 to share control of policing within the overall power-sharing executive. This paper analyses the key aspects of that transformation and in particular traces the dynamics which saw each political actor sufficiently shift its position to allow an agreement be reached. It explores the role of the international commission in setting an agenda and looks beyond Northern Ireland to the transferable lessons from the Northern Ireland case. This paper is based on research carried out for an edited volume “Policing the Narrow Ground” (Dublin, 2010) which included contributions form the “Patten” Commission members and key figures charged with implementing the transition.