Policing the normal

Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, policing in Northern Ireland has yet to fully normalise. Against a backdrop of PSNI officers relaying death threats, effigy burning on bonfires and unwanted flag flying, it is now time for the PSNI to take greater authority, writes David Whelan.

In the absence of a Justice Minister and a Policing Board, questions have been raised over whether there is an adequate level of scrutiny of the PSNI. Northern Ireland is undoubtedly a unique place to police. Echoes of the Troubles are still omnipresent and although much has been achieved in establishing peace, community-divisive issues abound. While the PSNI continues to work within the policy and practices laid out for it, recent events have brought in to focus a need for greater authority around contentious issues.
In May, a man was shot in a busy supermarket car park in Bangor in front of his young child. It later transpired that the victim was well known to the PSNI and had been on the receiving end of at least three death threats in the last year.

Police advising citizens that they are under the threat of death has become almost commonplace. Earlier this year Superintendent Norman Haslett told the BBC that the PSNI are handling at least one paramilitary death threat every day, after a family in West Belfast fled their home over threats against their three teenage sons.
Haslett revealed that the PSNI process when dealing with a death threat involved informing the victim by letter that they “may wish to review your personal security”.
The senior officer dismissed the perceptions of, in his own words, a “drop and run”, saying: “We don’t just drop and run. We give people the opportunity to consider their own security and we offer professional advice. As well as overt and covert measures I can’t go in to.”
However, such incidents have raised questions, not only about the ongoing level of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland, but also about the level of protection being offered to those who are under threat.

agendaNi’s Freedom of Information (FOI) requests around how many threats were relayed by the PSNI over the past two years, how many were deemed to be from a paramilitary source and how many people were subsequently injured following or killed following a death threat notice were all refused, citing the cost of retrieving the data would overrun the “appropriate limit”.
Although no statistics are available for recent years, an existing national FOI revealed that the PSNI issued 2,320 (Osman) warnings in 2010, 890 in 2011 and 258 in 2012.


The death threat notices are not the only consistently recurring theme that has called into question the need for decisive action by the PSNI. In July, the flying of flags once again raised its head when a designated shared housing site in south Belfast saw the erection of paramilitary flags. Residents, and the wider public, who raised concerns about intimidation towards the homeowners had their concerns recognised by the PSNI, but were eventually met by the restated line that the removal of flags was not the responsibility of the police service, who “would only act if it posed a substantial risk to public safety”.

The flags issue is one of a number of outstanding peace process disputes that politicians have failed to reach agreement on.
In 2015, the PSNI stated that it would treat the erection of flags in a mixed community of south Belfast as a breach of the peace. Welcomes of the move as a ‘toughening up of stance’ were rebutted by the PSNI, who maintained that the their policy and practice of only acting when substantial risks to public safety were evident, still stood.


The PSNI’s approach to controversial flags largely mirrors that towards bonfires. Acknowledging that the issue is socially divisive, the PSNI reinforced that the removal of bonfire material is not a matter for police but do assist other statutory bodies to carry out their duties subject to the prevailing circumstances.
Criticism was angled at the PSNI, and other bodies, in July, when a small number of bonfires across Belfast caused damage to nearby homes – despite concerns being raised prior to the collected wood being set alight.

There were also clear indications that some bonfires across Belfast, across both communities, would be epicentres of criminality. The burnings of election posters and effigies, a familiar site on some Belfast bonfires in particular, are deemed to be a hate crimes. However, despite the prior warnings, the PSNI appeared reactive rather than proactive in their approach to these incidents.
Undoubtedly, PSNI resources are stretched. However, in a time when divisions in society are attempting to be bridged, greater authority on divisive issues would be welcome. The absence of a working Assembly in Northern Ireland diminishes a layer of scrutiny, which is usually responsible for holding our public servants to account.


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