29 December 2005

Comment: Policing priority


If there’s one New Year wish that this community is entitled to have granted, it’s for a police service that can truly be said to serve our people and which will, in turn, be supported by all.

PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde can say all he wants in defence and explanation of what his officers have been up to in past year and the years before that, but he can’t wish away the undeniable truth, and that is that the PSNI is as discredited in the eyes of nationalists and republicans as the RUC ever was.

The ordinary man and woman on the street may not know, and probably never will know, the entire truth of the Stormont ‘spy ring’ episode. But they do know that the evidence on which the case was built was found in the home of a man who was in the pay of the RUC/PSNI for 20 years. In an environment in which truth and honesty are in very short supply, that is one fact which is untarnished, it is a fact that tells us much, much more than any amount of self-serving rhetoric from the British government and its agents.

We are asked to accept as entirely normal that the PSNI will acquire and amass intelligence. After all, the argument goes, no police service can do its job properly without information, some of which is not easily accessible through normal police channels. This would all be well and good if the PSNI were using informants to pursue and arrest those criminal elements who are tightening their grip on this community’s throat. But when the PSNI uses it premier intelligence-gathering resource, Special Branch, to target a political party with catastrophic implications for a hard-won and historic political deal and its democratic outworkings, then Hugh Orde is in cloud cuckoo land if he thinks that nationalists and republicans will consider that acceptable. It is not, and as long as the PSNI continues to invest more energy in surveillance and skullduggery in this community than it does on protection and service, then it will continue to find itself reviled and rejected.

As if the whole Stormont charade were not reason enough for us to keep the PSNI at arm’s length, the year-long Northern Bank investigation is fast turning from a joke into a fiasco. None of the arrests and charges that we have witnessed thus far is likely to inspire confidence in the bemused observer, but the treatment of Chris Ward, the young Poleglass bank official who was held for eight days and interviewed on 50 separate occasions, was particularly desperate and shameful. Although it emerged in court that Mr Ward’s home had been bugged, as had an apartment he stayed in while on holiday, the PSNI admitted in court that the evidence against the accused is wholly circumstantial. For the record, the dictionary defines the phrase ‘circumstantial evidence’ as “evidence which is not positive nor direct, but which is gathered inferentially from the circumstances in the case.” So, even after their ‘suspect’ had his private life subjected to the most minute and sustained scrutiny, even after the traumatised young man was given the most prolonged and intensive grilling ever experienced by anyone in the North, the case gathered and presented to the court was rambling and inferential.
The dark days of the Diplock conveyor belt are gone, thank goodness.

They are gone not because the government or the police wants them gone, but because there is a new and vigorous young generation of lawyers out there who are not cowed or chilled by the awesome power of the state and its agencies and who see opposition to state injustice not as subversion but as their bounden duty. Which is why threadbare cases, fit-ups and cynical conspiracies do not automatically succeed the way they did in the past, but are instead subjected to the most intense and forensic professional scrutiny. That is why the Stormont house of cards collapsed; that is why those being targeted in the Northern Bank investigation will not go quietly.

Away from the whys and wherefores of Stormont and the Northern Bank, what characterised each case was the staggeringly cynical exploitation of the media by the PSNI spin machine. How easy the media is to manipulate is a question for another day perhaps. Mr Orde’s heart may soar at the sight of hordes of his officers camped outside another home on the teatime news, but for the residents of West Belfast it’s just the signal for another round of political posturing.

The IRA’s bold move in dumping its arms should have been the catalyst for a range of similarly progressive steps, not least a move away from the policing ways of the past. But what we’ve seen is elements within the PSNI stepping up their campaign to stymie political progress. If Mr Orde is serious about winning broad community support for policing, his priority in 2006 must be to neuter those within his force who contine to follow their own agenda.

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