Community police service?

My mostrecent encounter with a British bobby happened nearly twenty years ago. I was in London to pick up a Sony Award for a BBC radio programme I presented , and I was heading for the Dorchester Hotel. Or I hoped I was. As usual I was a bit late, so I pantingly asked a friendly bobby the way. He looked at me, pulled out a little police radio-thingy from his breast pocket and said “I’m afraid I can’t – I’m busy now”. And he began to talk into his little radio.

I mention this because the latest survey shows that public confidence in the PSNI has dropped. Just 56% of people now think that our version of the British bobby is doing a good job; last April the figure was 64%. The UUP’s Basil McCrea showed his usual lightning ability to dissect a complex situation: ‘These statistics are heading the wrong way’ he explained.

The whole question of policing here is both central and complex. It was early shots of the RUC batoning hell out of demonstrators that gave adrenaline and backbone to the Civil Rights movement, and reform of the police was a vital component of the peace process. But policing is still an issue that’s far from resolved.

Once Catholics composed around 5% of the RUC force. These days the figures for Catholics and Protestants joining the PSNI are near to equal. Unfortunately we don’t have figures for how many of the new Catholic recruits are from the Bogside or West Belfast. My guess is that most of the recruits are middle-class. The areas which suffered most during the Troubles are not the areas supplying recruits to the PSNI. The Catholic middle-class may not have been the Prods-in-the-garden-centre who opted out of politics during the Troubles, but they experienced the Troubles as something relatively remote most of the time. Catholics in working-class areas experienced the Troubles up-close and personal. That’s why there are regular reports of mobs of youths attacking the PSNI in Derry and Belfast. It’s not their police service, it never was, and they’re telling the cops that with stones and bottles.

The Troubles obviously involve a clash between Catholics and Protestants, orange and green, but a class element has also been a crucial feature. In less affluent areas, particularly nationalist areas, the PSNI are still seen as middle-class muscle which keeps the scruff in their place. The fact that the police wear a symbol of the British crown in their caps isn’t lost on their attackers, either.

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