The carefully constructed image of the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) as a modern, impartial, and professional police force was tarnished by their aggressive treatment of anti-racist protestors. At the height of the BLM movement protests sprang up in Northern Ireland and in all cases they were peaceful and respectable and within COVID-19 guidelines. The PSNI, following Northern Ireland Assembly Executive instructions, reacted with a humiliating public imposition of fines and charges against the protestors. The racist undertones were so strong that even normally sedate sections of society were outraged. This development stood as a harsh warning to the working class and young people about the real nature of policing under capitalism.
The political history of policing in Northern Ireland is complex. The Northern Ireland peace process was accompanied by a great deal of hype about a new approach to policing. The PSNI replaced the heavily armed force, the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary). Voluntary retirement pay offs eased the process of disbanding the RUC, a programme of closing many police barracks encampments and the disappearance of the army from the streets were intended to break down the image of an old style highly political colonial force. The new police force, the PSNI, although still heavily armed was kitted out in a more relaxed style. Police cars and baseball hats largely replaced heavily armoured land rovers and militaristic uniforms. It was in the interest of the ruling class to have a police force that would be seen to reflect the terms of the Northern Ireland political settlement. But in reality, policing reflects the tense and unstable division of society based on agreed upon institutionalised sectarian divisions that are replicated within the Northern Ireland power sharing Assembly as well as throughout almost all aspects of public life. In the long run if an alternative to division is not found this sectarian balancing act will fail, as has already happened at various times in recent years, with the inevitable consequence that the police are mobilised against one side or the other.
Besides the new look to the PSNI there was an attempt to present it as an organisation with a more liberal approach. Unlike its predecessor the PSNI is known for making presentations to local policing boards, quoting human rights as a standard reference point, marching on Pride parades and even having a BAME organisation in their ranks. These changes may well be in line with the personal aspirations of many individual members of the PSNI, nevertheless, the main purpose of the changes is to fit in with a carefully constructed public image of an organisation more in line with the interests of a modern capitalist society. Unfortunately, however, at every critical moment the much-vaunted new approach to policing has failed to deliver.
Both nationalists and unionists have faced various levels of repressive political policing. This has frequently provoked protests that sometimes spill over into violent confrontations. So far, the state has managed to contain any backlash. This is primarily because much of the population fears a return to the dark days of armed conflict.
However, that is not the whole story of repression in Northern Ireland. The recent heavy-handed policing of the anti-racist protests at Custom House Square and Guildhall Square, the one sided policing of the anti-gold mining campaign in Tyrone and previous episodes were the police were viewed as partisan in their approach to environmental protestors in Carrickfergus and Fermanagh shows that repression is not confined to ‘Catholic/Protestant’ issues. The actions of the police towards these entirely peaceful movements exposes the reality. When big business profits are threatened by attempts to stop gold mining, fracking, or when anti-racist protestors appear to be disrupting the drive to get business going again then the police come down hard.
Similarly, when workers are engaged in industrial struggles, the police are charged with ensuring that pickets are only effective up to a point and that the raft of Thatcherite anti-union laws used to neuter the trade unions are not broken.
The reality of policing in Northern Ireland, and every other state, including the Republic of Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales, is that their role reflects the political, economic and social interests of the dominant capitalist ruling class and the relative strength of that class in relation to other forces in society. Ultimately the police, along with the other institutions of the state, are a tool of capitalism. To expect fair and impartial policing is akin to expecting the capitalist class to voluntarily give up its own power.
While the capitalist system remains in place, we cannot expect an end to repression to be gifted to us, we must fight for it.
- Drop the charges against anti-racist protestors
- Repeal anti trade union laws
- End use of repressive measures
- Defend democratic rights and fight for a socialist future free from repression