Page content

Community Policing and the Paramilitaries

7 February 2011

PSNI inertia in the delivery of effective, community-based police services in Loyalist and Republican areas has created a policing vacuum that is being filled by paramilitary activity, according to University of Ulster criminologists.

In a detailed study into the relationships between the PSNI, local communities and paramilitary groups, Dr John Topping, a lecturer in criminology, said PSNI inertia had created a space “in which the ever-present undercurrent of paramilitarism has flourished”.

Evidence showed that the policing ‘experience’ promised by the PSNI in the post-Patten period failed to meet community expectations and/or failed to address community fears about ongoing crime and anti-social behaviour.

“This has resulted in a growing acceptance of paramilitary ‘policing’ where there is a clear policing vacuum, with paramilitaries  as ‘entrepreneurs’ seeking to exploit the gaps,” explained Dr Topping.

The research paper, compiled by Dr Topping along with researcher Jonny Byrne from the University of Ulster’s Institute for Research in Social Sciences, is entitled: Paramilitary Entrepreneurs? The Competing Imperatives of Policing Provision in Northern Ireland.
They conducted extensive interviews within community organisations and among politicians and PSNI officers in Loyalist/Unionist and Republican/Nationalist areas of Belfast.

In total, 95 interviews were carried out between November 2007 and November 2009 – 60 of these were drawn from Loyalist and Republican communities with the remaining 35 drawn from PSNI officers serving within those areas.

Dr Topping quotes a Loyalist community activist: “I would say every area is the same. Every area has got a paramilitary influence . . . and the politicians, the bosses in the PSNI are burying their heads. I live in a Loyalist working class area and it (policing) hasn’t changed one bit and, if anything, it has got worse.  
“So if anyone says the peace process done anything, we say no.  This paramilitary influence has been brushed under the carpet by the politicians and the police don’t deal with it and it’s business as usual. In some areas, even being seen talking to the police is still considered informing.”And one republican intevriewee told the researchers: “There’s a palate out there for that (paramilitary justice) because people are getting so frustrated (at the lack of state policing).  “They’re saying: ‘I don’t give a f*** who hits them (criminals) as long as somebody’s hitting them, stopping it (crime).  So they (the community) don’t care if it’s institutional beatings they get from the cops or community beatings’.” Said Dr Topping: “Our study indicated that changing the hearts and minds of communities regarding the paramilitary ‘option’ had been underestimated by both the PSNI and politicians, in terms of the need for more effective frontline policing.

“In this regard, the evidence pointed to paramilitary organisations ‘cashing in’ on the lack of confidence in policing, as delivered by the PSNI.”

The research study also found that the effectiveness of the Public Prosecution Service and the legacy of the Troubles impacted on a lack of willingness by the Loyalist and Republican community to engage with the PSNI.