Reforming the RUC was seen as one of the Good Friday Agreement’s greatest tests and achievements.
The Patten Commission was established to make recommendations on the form that the transformation should take and the PSNI was established in 2001. The Policing Act on which the PSNI was founded did not create change that was as comprehensive as the Patten recommendations, the reforms were not universally welcomed, and were not signed up to by all of the parties until 2007.
The costs of changing the RUC to the PSNI were huge and ran into tens of millions with severance packages available to those who served under the RUC who did not want to change to PSNI, for whatever reason. Those former officers also received their pensions. Some of them also managed to come into the PSNI as “civilian staff”.
The thing about all of that was that it was never made clear why the change was necessary. It was alluded to around the issue of “community confidence”, because the RUC had been 90% Protestant up until that point. But of course, that did not explain the need for a human rights-based approach to the PSNI, for multiple platforms of accountability including a policing board and a Police Ombudsman’s office and formal community engagement structures.
Because we had not had an honest accounting for our conflict and impunity reigned and reigns supreme, the crimes of the RUC which included extensive collusion with loyalism, the firing of plastic bullets causing death and maiming and the systemic harassment of the nationalist population went unmentioned and instead the RUC got a medal from the Queen of England for valour and we all were asked to buy into a pretence that all’s well that ends well and we get on with the future and let sleeping dogs lie regarding the RUC. We all were asked to buy into a gentleman’s agreement that we all have our versions of the past and it was never to be mentioned again.
Last week we witnessed the folly of this pretence and turning a blind eye to the legacy of systemic human rights abuses. While the leadership of the PSNI has consistently and vocally been calling for a separate independent mechanism to investigate conflict related violations, and I believe that is entirely genuine, the organisation representing the PSNI rank and file has rejected the proposals to investigate the past. This is despite universal acceptance that the PSNI is not removed enough from the RUC, has been involved in systemic delays and abuse of process in matters of legacy and therefore cannot be considered independent. That acceptance includes the British Government in its submissions to the European Court of Human Rights which is monitoring just exactly how cases of state killings and collusion will be investigated.
However, the rank and file of the PSNI, at variance with the leadership of the PSNI, are saying they want to preserve the reputation of the RUC above their human rights obligations to ensure independent and human rights investigations for those most harmed by the conflict.
Is this an RUC coup within the PSNI? How will the Chief Constable respond? What is the political response? These are fundamental and critical questions going to the heart of our peace process, requiring immediate and sustained answers. However, the silence is deafening.