Wednesday, 13 March 2013

UNIONISTS, LOYALISTS AND POLITICAL POLICING – Why have loyalists come to perceive the PSNI as their enemy?

In recent days, both DUP leader Peter Robinson and TUV leader Jim Allister have made statements expressing concern at the police handling of loyalist demonstrations.  For Peter Robinson, this represents a significant shift from his earlier unequivocal support for the PSNI and call for an end  to protests, whilst Allister has suggested that the Chief Constable “is risking an irreversible disconnect between the PSNI and a significant section of the unionist community’.  

There is no doubt that Robinson and Allister have been forced to speak by the genuine anger amongst loyalists at the way they have been treated.  This anger, did not appear overnight, or even at the beginning of the flag protests, but has been building since last September, when, following riots connected to the parading dispute around St. Patrick’s Church on Donegall St., loyalists first accused the police of verbally abusing them, and deliberately provoking violence.  Such accusation have become increasingly common since, and whilst it is impossible to know how much truth there is in these reports, there is no question that they are widely believed by loyalists, and that combined with other issues of the kind detailed by Allister, this has led to a change in loyalist attitudes toward the PSNI, from the low-level suspicion and resentment that is common in the relations of working-class people to police forces everywhere, to real anger and even hatred, as loyalists have come to believe that the police really are their enemy.

Whilst loyalists have undoubtedly been shocked and angered by the hostility they have encountered from grassroots policemen, they have not found it easy to understand where this hostility stems from.  They have tended to assume, therefore, that the police force has, in some way, been co-opted to Sinn Féin’s cause, whether as a result of the large numbers of Catholic police officers which have been recruited following the Patten reforms, due to the bias of the Chief Constable or his weakness in the face of  political pressure from Sinn Féin, or simply because flag-carrying loyalists are easier targets than gun-toting republican dissidents.  This analysis has been expressed in the derisive labelling of the police force as the PSNIRA, and on the internet, for instance on the Facebook page, ‘Disband the PSNI & Parades Commission’

This analysis does not stand up well to scrutiny, however.  Although the Patten reforms have led to large-scale recruitment of Catholic officers, the PSNI is still a majority Protestant police force, and given a recent string of opinion polls showing that majorities of both Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland wish to retain the link with the UK, it is reasonable to suppose that the  police force contains a majority of Unionists, regardless of their religious background.  

Chief Constable Matt Baggott, is an Englishman who spent most of his career in London and Leicestershire and is a Commander of the British Empire who holds the Queen’s Police Medal.  There seems no reason to assume that he  is a closet Irish republican, or that he should be particularly susceptible to political pressure from Sinn Féin, or anyone else in Northern Ireland, since he will probably leave when his contract expires.  

Nor does it seem logical that grassroots officers should feel more hostile to loyalist demonstrators, even violent ones, than to dissident republicans who have shown their commitment to murdering police officers.

What then, is the source of the ‘disconnect between the PSNI and a significant section of the unionist community’?  

In order to understand this dynamic, it is necessary to specify what Jim Allister diplomatically left out – precisely which ‘significant section of the unionist community’ is being alienated from the police.  The answer is straightforward – the working-class section, usually referred to as loyalist.  

The fact that the ruling class prefers not to see the working-class on the streets is not new, and it is not confined to Northern Ireland.  The middle-class in Trinidad railed against carnival for decades, and much of the middle-class in Rio largely abandon the city at carnival time, just as the middle-class in Belfast do on the Twelfth of July.  Loyalist demonstrations have frequently been restricted or banned outright since Baron Smith of Armagh, precisely 200 years ago in 1813, described loyalism as ‘a rebellious and insurrectionary propensity gone astray, and running contradictorily in the channel of allegiance’.  Nevertheless, the RUC enforced this agenda for decades, but never attracted the opprobrium now directed at the PSNI.  What has changed?  

The answer can be found in the way the Patten reforms have been implemented.  Whilst the best publicised part of the reforms was the recruitment of Catholic officers, a deeper but less obvious change also took place.  During the Troubles, the police force was overwhelmingly recruited from the working-class.  At a time when serving as a police officer meant immense risks, with the constant fear of attack at any time, on or off duty, in one’s home or with one’s family, very few of the middle-class wanted the job.  The peace process changed this.  Jobs in the police were well paid and secure, and with the dangers enormously reduced, well qualified middle-class recruits flocked to the ranks, pushing out potential recruits from the working-classes.  According to researcher Peter Shirlow (personal communication), today’s PSNI has only a tiny minority of working-class members, almost none of them Protestant.

The disdain which many loyalists have felt directed at them from the police then, is not, as most have assumed, sectarian in nature.  It is class-prejudice.  Today’s police officers, Catholic or Protestant have mostly grown up in a shared middle-class culture which defines itself against what it perceives as the sectarianism, bigotry and sheer bad taste of the working-classes.  Flag-waving loyalists represent everything all of them, Protestant or Catholic, have learned to despise.  And these feelings condition their responses, whether they are aware of it or not.  So, to some extent, loyalists may be right in feeling that the PSNI are their enemy.  They are a class enemy, and they are likely to remain so as long as Northern Ireland remains a fundamentally unequal society.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

A Little About Me . . .

Born in the Irish Republic, son of an Irish Presbyterian working-class father and an English evangelical middle-class mother; raised mostly in England; served ten years in the British army (1 R. ANGLIAN for the most part), later worked as a motorcycle courier and motorcycle mechanic (specialising in Harley-Davidsons) in England.

On returning to Ireland in 1996, I worked as a motorcycle courier in Dublin before moving to Sligo where I worked as a guide for the Irish Heritage Service.  In 2001 I moved to Belfast to do a BA in Ethnomusicology & Social Anthropology at Queen's University. During this period I started to research the Ulster marching band tradition and the Ulster-Scots musical revival, learning to play the flute as part of my research.  I then commenced a PhD in Ethnomusicology, focusing on the marching band tradition, which I completed in 2009.  During this period, I played in the part-music band, Ballyclare Victoria, the melody band, Sir George White Memorial (Broughshane) and the Jig-style Blood & Thunder band, the Ballykeel Loyal Sons of Ulster (Ballymena).  I am still a member of Sir George White Memorial Flute Band and also play Ulster-Scots and Irish traditional music.

I am currently living in north Belfast, teaching Anthropology at Queen's, sailing with the cross-community Causeway Coast Maritime Heritage Group whenever I get the chance, playing the flute with my band or with anyone who will let me, writing for 'The Ulster Folk' (as well as writing academic papers), and rebuilding my Norton Commando 750. 

Welcome . . .

Welcome to the Northern Dissenter, where I will take a sideways look at the culture, politics, past, present and future of Ulster, Ireland, Britain and planet Earth . . .