Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Ulster Streets are British Streets: The double standard in riot policing must end.

 The response to the riots that have convulsed major mainland British cities – particularly London – over the last few days has been telling. Many people, after watching the television footage of citizens terrorised, shops looted and historic buildings torched, are calling for a more ‘vigorous’ approach to riot policing. The sight of hooligans trashing the capital seemingly with impunity is, in my view, frankly embarrassing.

The authorities, however, have a different view. Theresa May announced this morning that water cannon will not be used. I have no problem with this myself, because water cannon are distance management tools that I don’t think would be of much use in the sort of decentralised, looting-focused riots we’re seeing at the moment. What vexed me was her justification:

"The way we police in Britain is not through use of water cannon," she said. "The way we police in Britain is through consent of communities."
The Telegraph, 09/08/11 

There are two objectionable errors in this statement: the idea that we don’t use water cannon as a part of British riot policing; and the idea that ‘community consent’ means allowing law-breakers to run rampant. I will be addressing the second in an article on TSJ, but let’s examine the first.

It sends a worrying message about this government’s attitude towards Northern Ireland if the Home Secretary can claim with a straight face that riot control tactics that are a regular feature of Northern Ireland policing have ‘no place’ in British policing.

Img psnibadge.png
A British Police Service.
This isn’t simply a matter of my unionist sensibilities being rankled by semantics, it hints at a deeper problem with the attitude of the British government towards Northern Ireland and the double standards it operates when it comes to protecting its citizens.

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is to look at it from the rioter’s point of view: if it is politically unacceptable for the government or Metropolitan Police to use water cannon and baton rounds against English rioters, why is it acceptable to use such tactics against rioters (whether Protestant or Catholic) in Northern Ireland? Through the other end of the telescope, why should British citizens in Northern Ireland be able to expect a more vigorous police response than their compatriots in the South-East and the Midlands?

That isn’t to say that the P.S.N.I’s approach is perfect – the Metropolitan Police are at least conducting mass arrests and recovering stolen property, which the P.S.N.I. – at least according to the News Letter – does not. Yet Northern Ireland’s representatives in parliament should ask the government why it condones tactics against the Northern Irish that it refuses to use on the mainland. Northern Ireland is not a foreign land, and if a tactic is used in Ulster, it is ‘in use’ in the UK.


  1. Whilst I have a lot of sympathy for your argument, it would also be pointed out that policing on the Emerald Isle has always been different under British writ.

    - No tradition of regional police forces - always a unitary one answerable to central control. Like the PSNI and its predecessor the RUC. Before 1921 it was the RIC for the whole of the country except for the DMP for Dublin.

    - Guns. PSNI and the RUC packed. Before 1921 and before the troubles starting from 1910 etc the RIC packed as did partly the DMP.

    (One of the ambitions of the hardline/non-hardline Republicans upon the creation of the Free State was to create an unarmed police force which they achieved with the creation of the routinely unarmed Garda)

    Therefore policing in Ireland under the British writ has in many ways failed to resemble the central planks of British policing within the union - and this is reflected I guess also in dealing with rioters.

  2. That might have been necessary once, and perhaps it is now (I'm not 100% sure, nobody can be). But in the era of relative peace and cooperation we're seeing in Northern Ireland at the moment I'd have thought that the police might be trying to move towards the UK standard. Even if not, it would be nice if British government ministers didn't exclude Northern Ireland from their thinking when talking about UK policing.

  3. Additionally, I'm pretty sure that establishing an unarmed police force in post-independence Ireland was much easier as the IRA were no longer murdering police officers.