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"It's Part of Life Here..." The Security Forces and Harassment in Northern Ireland, by Dr. Robbie McVeigh

[Key_Events] [Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]

Text: Dr. Robbie McVeigh ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following extracts have been contributed by the author Dr. Robbie McVeigh with the permission of the publishers. The views expressed in this chapter do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.

These extracts are taken from:

"It's Part of Life Here...."
The Security Forces and Harassment in Northern Ireland

by Dr. Robbie McVeigh (1994)
ISBN 1 873285 13 2 Paperback 221pp
Cover designed by Paul Kernan CTRS

Published by:
CAJ {external link}
Committee on the Administration of Justice
45-47 Donegall Street

These extracts are copyright Dr. Robbie McVeigh 1994 and are included on the CAIN site by permission of the publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of Committee on the Adminstration of Justice. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

1. The History of Policing in Northern Ireland
2. Background to the Research
3. Research Methods
4. The Quantitative Analysis
5. Young People and Harassment by the Security Forces
6. Catholics and Harassment by the Security Forces
7. Protestants and Harassment by the Security Forces
8. Women and Harassment by the Security Forces
9. Policing and Minority Communities in Northern Ireland
10. Reporting of Harassment to Statutory Organisations
11.Reporting of Harassment to the Human Rights Community
12. Addressing Security Force Harassment
13. Conclusion
Appendix: The Questionnaire.


The Executive Committee of the Committee on the Administration of Justice is pleased to publish this major piece of work on harassment by the security forces in Northern Ireland. The timing of publication is particularly helpful in view of recent political developments. The ceasefires declared by the IRA and the CLMC have led to deep debate about the future of policing. We are certain that the research and background information contained in this volume can inform that debate. It also identifies a major series of issues which will have to be addressed if policing is to be in tune with respect for civil liberties.

We are particularly grateful to the J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation of Chicago which provided funding for this project. It would not have been possible without this financial support.

We would, finally, like to thank Robbie McVeigh himself. His contribution to the life and work of the CAJ was (and is) far above and beyond his work on the current project.

In this piece of work he has provided the first quantitative assessment of harassment in Northern Ireland. The research conclusions should be fully considered by the authorities if they are concerned truly to address the issue of policing in the changed circumstances following the end of paramilitary violence.

CAJ Executive Committee
November 1994


Northern Ireland is very different from the rest of the United Kingdom. The acute social and political unrest which has characterised the area since the late 1960s has been variously described as a 'war', a 'conflict' and an 'emergency'. However described Northern Ireland is politically, socially and culturally divided. These divisions are reflected throughout the whole society and create problems in areas of life which remain relatively uncontested elsewhere. One of the key areas of dispute and concern is the criminal justice system. Alongside the development of the political/military conflict since the 1960s there has been the development of a whole infrastructure of 'emergency powers' and a massive increase in the numbers of police and army. While critical questions can be raised about aspects of policing and the criminal justice system in the rest of United Kingdom and in other liberal democracies across western Europe and beyond, the nature and extent of emergency legislation and policing in Northern Ireland suggests that the situation here is 'abnormal'. These emergency measures and the level of policing set Northern Ireland apart.

From a human rights and civil liberties perspective, the emergency character of the criminal justice system is in itself profoundly worrying and deserving of investigation regardless of the political state of play. The longevity of the 'emergency' and the use of special powers' is equally troubling - it has 'normalised' the emergency - emergency powers and paramilitary policing have become routine in Northern Ireland. However it is also clear that many people in Northern Ireland feel that 'emergency powers' and the levels of policing are as much a cause as a symptom of the emergency'. It is not just the numbers and power of the security forces, but also their performance in carrying out their duties, that disturbs many people.

This is not to suggest that there are easy ways to 'normalise' the criminal justice system or that policing Northern Ireland is an easy task. Obviously the emergency situation in Northern Ireland makes normal policing' difficult; it makes the job of the security forces especialiy dangerous; and it makes it especially hard to police fairly and democratically. Thousands of members of the security forces have been injured over the past twenty five years of conflict in Northern Ireland (Police Authority 1994: 11). Hundreds from all branches of the security forces have been killed because of their involvement in policing Northern Ireland.[1] There can be no underestimating the dangers for the security forces of policing Northern Ireland when different communities there are effectively at war with them. Nor can there be any underestimating the particular strain under which locally-based members of the RUC and HR must operate.[2] Thus there are conditions which make the delivery of a fair and democratic policing service especially difficult and challenging in Northern Ireland.

However it cannot help that these conditions are only acknowledged by Government when they are trying to excuse civil liberties abuses and not when they are trying to address them. It is disingenuous of the Government to pretend that the situation is one of normality. This dishonesty has been described by Dr. Clare Palley, the independent expert nominated by the UK to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, as:

'hypocritical conduct, justifying lower human rights standards by reason of the situation of terrorism, while at the same time declining internationally to admit that there is such a breakdown of order as to require a full derogation [from the European Convention] and that a state of emergency exists.' [3]
It is in this context that the debate around harassment and the security forces takes shape in Northern Ireland. Of course, any attempt to address harassment by the security forces must begin by assessing the degree to which policing in Northern Ireland is abnormal. But it must then take the position that - whatever the activities of paramilitary groups - the security forces must not be above the law. It must also take the position that - again whatever the tactics and crimes of paramilitary groups - basic human rights and civil liberties are inviolable. Improper or criminal or inhuman behaviour by non-state forces can never be an excuse for improper or criminal or inhuman behaviour by the state. Whatever the character of a war situation' or an 'emergency', there are basic principles of security force practice that remain inviolable: firstly, the security forces must operate within the rule of law - if they do not, they must be brought to justice; secondly, they must do so in a manner that is fair and reasonable; thirdly, the law within which they operate must guarantee civil rights and liberties, not suspend or abrogate them.

In a democratic society policing issues are the concern of all. The police are public servants and are given powers in trust for the public. While this means the police are entitled to support from the public insofar as they are carrying out the tasks the public has entrusted them with, it also means that the public is entitled to criticise them when they do not. The police are not entirely autonomous, they cannot set their own agenda. In the specific case of Northern Ireland, there is an argument - implicit or explicit - that any criticism - or sometimes even any discussion - of the security forces is simultaneously succour to paramilitaries. The CAJ argues that the opposite of this is the truth - open debate about the role of the security forces is essential in any society which aspires to be democratic. Discussion of policing issues is essential to the creation of an environment of open and democratic policing. This discussion must include - where justified - criticism of, as well as praise for, the security forces. If there are elements in the security forces involved in malpractice, it is in the interests of the security forces to be informed of this. If there are aspects of security force policy which -whether intended or not - undermine basic human rights, then it is in the interests of the security forces to be informed of this. Where deserved, criticism of different security force policies and practices is helpful to the security forces. Even if it argued that this wrongdoing is more perceptual than actual, it is conducive to good practice that it be debated and the security forces be made aware of it. It is from this perspective that we began our research on harassment and the security forces. Research on and discussion of policing is an inherent and necessary part of the process of securing the highest standards of policing. When merited, criticism of policing is in the interests of every citizen - including the security forces themselves.

It is important to situate our research on the security forces and harassment in terms of a literature review of existing research on policing. We look at the notion of harassment and how it has been defined in research in much more detail in Chapter Two. However we need to introduce the research by looking at the broad issue of research on the police and army. There are three broad categories of interest here:

  1. research on policing in general
  2. research on problems with policing and police malpractice
  3. research on policing in Northern Ireland.

Research on Policing in General

There is a basic dichotomy between research that involves the cooperation of the police and research that does not. Co-operation usually allows direct access to the police and suggests ethnography as the key research methodology. Some of the most influential work on policing has followed this ethnographic approach (Holdaway 1983; Smith 1983b, c). However, the police and army, like many other professions, are often very hostile to research, even when this research appears sympathetic. So, even where researchers want direct access to the police, it is often very difficult to obtain. Thus -either through choice or through necessity - much research on the police and army is undertaken without the consent of the body involved and without direct access to them. Again, much influential research and analysis has followed this model (Hall et al. 1978; GLC 1984). Neither methodology is inherently superior; each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Access and ethnographic method allows contact with the police and the ability to paint a detailed picture of their world. Other research allows a greater degree of distance from the police's view of policing. Research based on access to the police is usually focused on the views of the police themselves. Other research tends to be more dependent on the views of people who are policed than those who do the policing.[4] With appropriate time and resources a combination of different approaches and methodologies can be used. Probably the finest example of this eclectic approach is the ground-breaking Policy Studies Institute's Police and People in London (Small 1983; Smith 1983a, b, c) which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Police. This research had access to the police but it also worked with communities very critical of policing. It utilised a number of different methodologies to paint a comprehensive picture of policing in London in the early 1980s.

Research on Problems with Policing and Police Malpractice

We have suggested that the police and army are often reluctant to encourage research on themselves. Not surprisingly, they are even less likely to encourage research if it seems to be critical in design. Research that uses terms like 'harassment' or 'problems with policing' may do nothing more than signal the fact that there is a widespread perception that 'harassment' or 'problems with policing' exist and that this perception should be investigated. Nevertheless, critical research of this nature finds it extremely difficult to achieve access to the police. However, such access to and co-operation from the police is not impossible. As we have already seen, one of the most important pieces of research in this vein was commissioned by the Metropolitan Police themselves. They employed the highly respected independent research institute, the Policy Studies Institute, to conduct detailed research on the police in London using a variety of different methods. The results pointed to very significant problems with the police in London and worried the police themselves. Nevertheless it was much to the credit of the Metropolitan Police that they commissioned the research in the first place. A similar project commissioned by the security forces in Northern Ireland could be equally valuable.

Thus it is not impossible to gain access to the police when investigating police malpractice. Uildriks and van Mastrigt were given access for their study Policing Police Violence. They suggest that police violence can be categorised as occurring at different levels: individual, situational and organisational (1991: 16-19). The individual level is the often cited 'rotten apple' syndrome of bad individual officers; the situational level is dependent on the authority of the police being challenged when violence is used in response to this situation; the organisational level is where the whole force is socialised into using violence in some way. While this research focused on policing in Scotland, no doubt this point about different levels of legitimacy and explanation holds broadly true for Northern Ireland. There are clearly different levels of and explanations for police harassment; some focus on the behaviour and intentions of individual officers, others on the institutional character and policy of the whole force. However most research suggests that the 'rotten apple' thesis is not an adequate explanation for police wrong-doing (Uildriks and van Mastrigt 1991: 16-17). It may be convenient once wrongdoing has been admitted for the police to scapegoat individual officers. However explanations of police violence and harassment must go beyond blaming individual police officers and look to institutional characteristics which tolerate and/or encourage such wrongdoing.

Such explanations are unlikely to be provided - or even recognised - by the police themselves. Ethnography - no matter how unlimited the access - is unlikely to address these questions adequately. To begin to unpack the cause and process of police malpractice we need to make sense of the view of the police (and the state) in terms of competing notions of what the police do. It is helpful to situate policing in particular countries in terms of an international comparative context; and it is helpful to situate the views of the police in terms of the views of people who are policed by them. For example, Bayley offers an insightful analysis of similarities with perceptions of policing around the world:

'I recently tried to survey, in a variety of democratic countries, the press reports, as well as the official reports, of complaints about police brutality. The thing that astonished me was there is not any country that does not believe that it does not have a problem of police brutality.... Nonetheless, the media and the public believe they have got a problem. What is interesting is that there is lack of connection between the objective amount of police brutality and the subjective perception by the public about the amount. Police brutality is a social fact, meaning that its significance stems not from how much of it there may objectively be, but whether the people who view it and hear about it think they have a problem. If they think they have a problem, then they have one' (1992: 4).
Thus it seems that the most effective research is most likely to involve the perceptions of the public as much as some notional objective measurement of levels of 'police malpractice'.[5] Bayley's analysis is confirmed by critical work on policing around the world. The best research has been dependent on seeking the views -whether through etlinography or questionnaire or public inquiry - of people on the receiving end of the police service.[6]While, as Uildriks and van Mastrigt illustrate, useful research on police malpractice can be obtained through access to the police, the most important view in terms of 'problems with policing' is that of the population being policed.

Research on Policing in Northern Ireland

There is relatively little research on policing in Northern Ireland -either contemporary or historical. There are a number of standard histories of the different elements in the security forces (Brady 1974; Hezlett 1972). Much of the other work that has been done has been journalistic in character (Barzilay 1973, 1975, 1978, 1981; Hamill 1985; Ryder 1991, 1992). While this body of research provides useful basic information and some discussion of the character of the security forces, there is only limited analysis of the dynamics of security force/community relations.

There is comparatively little academic research and analysis of policing in Northern Ireland (Tennant 1988; Walker 1990; Weitzer 1985, 1987, 1992). As Ellison argues:

Unlike police forces in Europe, the United States and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent those in Britain, the hierarchy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is not particularly amenable to having its officers researched in anything other than the most restrictive of circumstances.... Unfortunately, in the absence of major sociological research into this area the role of the RUC as a major player in the Northern Ireland conflict will continue to remain relatively obscure.
Brewer and Magee's Inside the RUC - ethnographic research which focuses on 'routine policing' - is a notable exception for which access was granted (1991).[7] This research emphasised the 'dual role' of the RUC: its roles as both a 'normal' and a paramilitary police force (Magee 1991). Mapstone's Policing in a Divided Society (1994) provides a insight into the particular experience of part-time RUC. There have been attempts to situate policing in Northern Ireland in an international context (Brewer et al. 1988; Emsley and Weinberger 1991). There is also some work on social attitudes towards policing in Northern Ireland (Brewer 1992: 52-66; PPRU 1994). Despite this existing research, there is clearly a dearth of academic work on the RUC in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, there is even less research on the role of the RIR and the British Army in policing Northern Ireland. Huge questions such as the exact meaning of having the army working 'in support of the civil power' and the implications of this for policing have been largely ignored (Rowe and Whelan 1985). The limited nature of academic research in this area is particularly striking given the wider political debate around policing in Northern Ireland. There is a remarkable lack of academic discussion of the contentious side of policing - the ongoing accusations of harassment, 'shoot to kill' and collusion. In general, the few academic texts which have looked at policing in Northern Ireland have tended to shy away from discussing the more problematic areas of security force practice.

In terms of critical work on the security forces, there is, of course, much political and journalistic coverage and comment (O'Dowd 1992). There is also a fair amount of existing human rights/civil liberties discussion of policing as a discrete topic or in the context of a wider analysis. Amnesty International and the CAJ have been particularly important in working in this area (Amnesty International 1991, 1994; CAJ 1982, 1985, 1988, 1990, 1993). Other human rights groups have also pointed to problems with policing as part of their wider concerns (Helsinki Watch 1991; Lawyers Committee for Human Rights 1993; Liberty 1993). There has also been some consideration of the existing complaints system and suggestions for change (CAJ 1990, 1993; Weitzer 1986, 1992).

Despite this existing work there is a disquieting lack of systematic research and analysis on the security forces in Northern Ireland. As Whelan argues: 'In democratic societies, the domestic use of the military raises constitutional, legal and political questions of the most fundamental kind' (1985: 264). It is time that these 'fundamental' questions and others pertinent to policing Northern Ireland are given the profile they deserve. There is an obvious gap that should be filled by all parties to the debate around policing in Northern Ireland: the security forces themselves, Government, non-Government organisations, political and community organisations -as well as academics. Each of these elements has a part to play in improving the policing of Northern Ireland through research. This research should identify existing problems as well as existing good practice. Our research is a contribution to this debate but it should not be seen as the end of the process. This research report highlights many problems in terms of both policing itself and the related complaints procedures; it also makes a number of recommendations towards improving this situation.

The ongoing 'peace process' offers the prospect of some negotiated settlement to the conflict. For the first time in many years there is a possiblity of demilitarisation in Northern Ireland. Dissatisfaction with the policing service is still widespread despite the reduction in non-state political violence. Changing the nature of Policing in Northern Ireland must be a key part in any peace process and political settlement. The reduction in paramilitary violence removes much of the government's justification for the 'infrastructure of coercion which has been so central to complaints about human rights and civil liberties abuses in Northern Ireland over the past 25 years. We are convinced that research and discussion can only contribute to the process of securing the highest standards of policing for Northern Ireland. We hope that this research report will play an important part in that process.

Most recently the CAJ has called [8] for a wide-ranging review of policing. This review should be independent, have an international dimension, draw on international human rights expertise and report to the two governments and all parties to eventual negotiations. The review body should engage in extensive consultation with communities at grass-roots level. CAJ also called for the army and associated secret units to play no further role in policing.

CAJ has also called for the security forces and other relevant authorities to cease using emergency legislation, as a prelude to its repeal. The research presented in this volume gives a clear indication of how the scale and range of security force personnel and the legislation at their disposal cause community dissatisfaction. Addressing these issues will be an important test of the authorities' commitment to infusing new political arrangements with strong human rights protection.


[1]At the time of the republican and loyalist cease-fires 296 RUC and 648 British soldiers had been killed during the troubles (Newsletter 18/10/1994). It has been suggested that the RUC is the most dangerous policing job in the world. Brewer and Magee estimate that 1 in 16 RUC officers have been killed or injured (1991:155).
[2]This is witnessed by the high rate of suicide and attempted suicide in the security forces and the high incidence of other stress-related behaviour (Brewer and Magee1991: 155-186).
[3]Statement by Dr Palley to the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, 19 August 1993.
[4]Of course, there is no reason why ethnography cannot be used to capture the experience of those being policed as well as those doing the police. There are fine examples of ethnography being used to just such an end (Small 1983).
[5]Although Bayley suggests that it is possible to identify at least eight forms of 'police brutality' around the world:
  1. excessive force in making an arrest
  2. deaths in custody
  3. use of lethal force
  4. use of torture
  5. use of indiscriminate force
  6. excessive force in handling public disorder and demonstrations
  7. reprisals and intimidation through the use of death squads
  8. harassment, threats and demeaning behaviour
    (Bayley 1992: 1-2).
[6]The Greater London Council Police Committee's Racial Harassment in London (1984) is a good example of the panel of inquiry model of research. This research was particularly important in stimulating research around policing and racism despite the fact that the Metropolitan Police refused to cooperate with the research.
[7]Ellison's research in progress will provide further important insights into the RUG based on primary research (1994: 14-15).
[8]In A Submission to the Joint Oireachtas Foreign Affairs Committee, Wednesday 2nd November 1994.

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Our quantitative analysis specifically researched the experience of security force harassment by the young people in Northern Ireland. This focus was a consequence of the CAJs growing concern about issues specific to young people and the administration of justice. Our concern is supported by other research which has pointed to the high incidence of harassment in general and security force harassment in particular experienced by young people (Amnesty 1991; Bell 1990; Helsinki Watch 1992; PSI 1987). While the statutory sector rarely addresses these issues in terms of harassment, it is clear that Government, the police, and community police liaison committees have also been made aware of tensions between young people and the security forces (CPLC 1994: 28-33, 37-38, 42-43).

Certainly young people in Northern Ireland find themselves in a situation in which they can be specifically exposed to violence and the threat of violence. This point was made clear by the comprehensive Policy Studies Institute research on perceptions and views in Northern Ireland. David Smith argues that their results:

'show that the experience of young men is very different from that of other groups, and this is superimposed on a major regional difference between Belfast and elsewhere. This implies that an extraordinarily high proportion of young men in Belfast think they have been victims of sectarian attack.... the majority [of Catholic young men in Belfast) said they had been attacked for religious or political reasons. It is important to recognise, therefore, that although sectarian attack is not very common in Northern Ireland as a whole, there are certain milieux in which it is very common; these are, no doubt, the nurseries of future conflict' (Smith 1987; 32, original emphasis)
The CAJ research was specifically concerned with the question of security force harassment and thus not directly comparable with the PSI research. However the PSI research confirms that there are certain milieux' where general harassment is common. There are of course other structuring factors like class and gender which mean that harassment assumes different forms and intensities for different groups of young people. Nevertheless, as Smith suggests, youth in itself is associated with specific forms of violence. It is also associated with specific forms of harassment from the security forces. As Helsinki Watch pointed out:
One of the most frequent complaints that Helsinki Watch receives from Northern Ireland concerns street harassment by the security forces.... Children under eighteen appear to be particular targets of street harassment. Helsinki Watch found that harassment of under-eighteens is endemic in West Belfast and in other troubled areas in Northern Ireland; that harassment is not confined to Catholic youngsters, but is carried out against Protestant youth as well; and that lodging harassment complaints against security forces is generally seen as useless.... Harassment of children in troubled areas is so common that children and their parents treat it as a matter-of-fact part of everyday life. Some parents charge that there is a constant campaign of harassment against young people, ages fourteen to eighteen.... Helsinki Watch concludes that harassment of children under eighteen in Northern Ireland is endemic, is directed against children in both traditions - Nationalist and Unionist - and is in violation of international agreements and standards' (1992: 18-33).
So children and young people are in a particularly vulnerable and problematic situation vis-a-vis policing and harassment in Northern Ireland. As we have seen, David Smith argued that there are 'certain milieux' in Northern Ireland where violence and the threat of violence is very common and that, where these involve young people, they become 'nurseries of future conflict'. Our research suggests that simply being young places people in Northern Ireland in an antagonistic relationship with the security forces. In consequence of this, Smith's argument about 'nurseries of future conflict' is particularly significant. For this reason alone the specificity of youth! security force relations must give rise to deep concern and deserves immediate attention.

It bears emphasis that there can be no crude extrapolation from our quantitative research on the experience of young people. Young people probably experience more general harassment and violence than other sections of the community. They also probably experience more security force harassment than other sections of the community. Nevertheless our research is at least illustrative of areas in which there are problems related to issues other than that of youth: class, gender, sectarian identity and so on. These are discussed in later chapters. Most immediately and graphically, however, the research points to the huge problem of perceived harassment of young people by the security forces. This demands attention and discussion.

Young people and policing in Northern Ireland

Young people sometimes feel exasperated by the nature of life in Northern Ireland and see harassment as part of the cause for such dissatisfaction:

People are harassed for no reason. When I say no reason, I mean no criminal reason, just for being who they are whether it be Catholic or Protestant. I thought that the security forces were meant to calm the troubles down in Northern Ireland but instead they make the problem worse. Mind you the kids that live in this town couldn't care less about the security forces or religion for they are just fed up with it. Don't get me wrong there is a few that do help young people but it is only a few. (Woman 'neither religion': Ballymena)
However this may have little to do with the 'emergency situation'. Indeed it may have little to do with police harassment. There is often a general tension between young people and police because of intergenerational conflict and the fact that the police are the most obvious figures of authority outside the family. This tension is recognised in Northern Ireland even when people are generally positive towards the police:
Being a young person I often find in our town that both I and friends are stopped by local police more regularly for loitering than those drinking in public and posing a potential threat. In Portrush it seems that the police try for as little trouble as possible, turning a blind eye to men that would be easily moved to violence and concentrate on softer targets, posing no threat. [However] my experience of policing is that the pro's heavily outweigh the cons. (Protestant Man: Coleraine)
Even when the tension between the police and young people is perceived as harassment, this is often clearly about 'non-emergency policing. For example, some perceived harassment seems simply related to the security forces behaving in an overbearing and patronising manner towards young people:
When I was at school I used to hang around our local shopping area with friends from school. Personally I don't think we were doing anyone any harm, but the policemen patrolling the area always told us to 'be on our way'. This used to upset me a lot, as the people they were telling to move away were being quiet and civil , and there were other crowds hanging around who were getting up to all sorts of bad behaviour and were doing so without being hassled by police.... [I didn't complain because] Do you really think they would listen to a crowd of school children? (Catholic Man : Belfast)
The harassment of young people often seems simply concerned with controlling youth as a potentially deviant subculture. For example, drugs are an obvious area of concern to the police; but to young people they sometimes seem no more than a pretext for harassment:
The Police or Army seem to think that, if you look a particular way e.g. scruffy or unusual, that you will probably be carrying drugs. Several times I have been questioned about where I am going and why. And one question that usually comes up is, 'Have you ever taken drugs?' They always say it light-heartedly, ready to pounce. (Catholic Woman: Newtownabbey)

I find it ridiculous that people cannot stand in a street nowadays without being harassed by the police. They do it as they have nothing else to do at times but they tell us that they have, 'received complaints'. I would like to know, who from?
One other time I was standing in Ballykeel when I was stopped by the police. Three officers, two male and one female stepped out of the car. They asked if they could search me. I asked why? They said, 'We have reason to believe you are carrying illegal substances'. I had nothing to hide so I let them but I was totally disgusted at their motives for searching me. It was embarrassing! (Protestant Man: Ballymena)

The age of the security forces can also be particularly galling for young people when it appears that the people empowered to harass them are their own age and yet not from Northern Ireland:

I dislike the feeling experienced when walking down a street or travelling by car and a member or members of the security forces (concerning all branches) look you up and down with disgust or contempt for no apparent reason. Equally disturbing is the feeling when you appear to be the object of some joke which is not shared with you but those security forces involved find it very amusing. Basically it boils down to not appreciating the knowledge that the sights of an automatic rifle may be trained on my head by someone my own age who has no more idea of the real situation in this province than I have of life on Mars! (Catholic Man: Down)

There are also sometimes rather poignant reminders of the fact that the conflict impinges routinely on the lives of young people. Even when the security forces may not be intending to harass, the very fact that they are armed can prove extremely intimidatory for children:

Until a few years ago there was a checkpoint on our school bus route and almost everyday soldiers would get on the bus and walk to the back, pointing their rifle as people. We were all afraid of them and it was unnecessary intimidation for children! (Catholic Woman: Fermanagh)

So some perceived harassment appears to be the consequence of simply having armed security forces - whatever their practice regarding young people. And some is indicative of a more general alienation from the police which is perhaps not particularly problematic - at least in the sense that it is probably endemic to police/youth relations in most societies whether they are in violent conflict or not. However, there are other experiences of harassment which are quite clearly problematic and consequent upon the use and abuse of police powers specific to Northern Ireland:

Coming out of College in the town the British Army look at you like you are scum. On one occasion they even spat out at us. (Catholic Man: Castlereagh)

This kind of experience goes beyond 'overstepping the mark'; it is clearly an example of harassment.

The routinisation of harassment

The routinisation of harassment m Northern Ireland is accepted by many respondents. This does not imply acceptance of harassment as being moral or legal but rather acceptance in the sense of it being 'part of everyday life':

Being young and male, I feel that I draw more attention from security forces than other peer groups. This attention may be pointing guns at you in the street. Unnecessary delays by long driving license checks and sardonic tones when asking questions.... Because the harassment continues, in my view the harassment is due to the personal prejudices and experiences of the harasser so official complaints will not make much difference. In this state, harassment has become part of everyday life.... There seems to be no point of complaint as the harassment still continues. (Catholic Man: Newry and Mourne)

Even respondents who were relatively unconcerned by the harassment they had experienced could sometimes illustrate an alarming acceptance of the normalcy of the threat of violence in Northern Ireland. For instance, one respondent said he had not reported harassment by the security forces to anyone because:

In nineteen years it has only happened maybe two or three times and I have never felt it important. I mean if they wanted to shoot me they would do so. (Man 'neither religion': Coleraine)

It is clear then that part of the process of challenging harassment must be challenging this kind of acceptance of the normality of such experiences. Routinisation prevents people from reporting and addressing incidents of harassment even when they feel that they have been treated wrongly by the security forces.


There is a profound problem in terms of harassment and young people in Northern Ireland. Some of this perceived harassment is the consequence of 'non-emergency' issues - particularly intergenerational tensions and the role of the police as controlling agents - which exist in any state. However the vast majority of complaints of harassment from young people are concerned with emergency' policing. These concerns are evident from both Catholic and Protestant young people. They are evident from both young men and young women. They are evident from young people in both urban and rural areas. They are evident from both middle class and working class backgrounds, although working class young people are more likely to feel that they have been harassed by the security forces.

There is obviously a serious problem here for Government and the security forces. As Smith suggested, this harassment is a nursery for future conflict'. The security forces have a huge credibility gap to overcome with these young people. If one quarter of young people in Northern Ireland feel that they have been harassed by the security forces, then one quarter of young people in Northern Ireland have very good, personal reason to have doubts about the fairness of policing in Northern Ireland. Moreover, one quarter of young people have good, personal reason to question the fairness of the whole administration of justice in Northern Ireland. In this situation, it is hardly surprising that there are questions around the legitimacy and equity of the criminal justice system. If the security forces wish to secure the co-operation and support of young people, they must move swiftly to address the serious and systematic harassment of young people. If Government wants to secure the co-operation and support of its citizens in Northern Ireland, it must also move swiftly to address this harassment. It must ensure that mechanisms are put in place to offer effective remedy when security force harassment does happen. Moreover, Government must set itself the goal of preventing such harassment happening at all.

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In Northern Ireland there has been a long-standing alienation of Catholics from the state in general and the security forces in particular (O Connor 1993). As we saw earlier this alienation developed from a history of sectarian policing in Ireland. The first Irish police forces were explicitly sectarian in make-up with Catholics excluded from membership. Even when Catholics began to be recruited to the RIC, the officer class remained predominantly Protestant until partition.[40] Thus the RUC and B Specials inherited a situation in which they stood in a specifically antagonistic relationship to the Catholic population in Northern Ireland. We have seen how the Specials remained exclusively Protestant throughout their existence and how the UDR were and RIR remain almost exclusively Protestant. Despite avowed attempts to recruit more Catholics, the RUC has also remained heavily Protestant.

The undoubtedly 'Protestant' make-up of the security forces in Northern Ireland has long been accompanied by accusations by different elements in the Catholic community of sectarian practice. The response to our research suggests that this remains very much the case. 48% of respondents who identified as 'Catholic', also reported some experience of harassment from the security forces.[41] (The corresponding figures were 12% of 'Protestants'; 27% of those who identified as 'neither Protestant nor Catholic'; and 26% of all respondents.) So these figures represent a worrying problem with the security forces for younger Catholic people. They also suggest that the sectarianisation of policing in Northern Ireland - in terms of Catholic perception if nothing else - remains as real as ever.

The sectarianisation of policing

The debate around security force sectarianism is a long and complex one, often clouded by assertion. It is helpful to unpack the different aspects of sectarianism to begin to assess the evidence more critically. It is useful to acknowledge that it is not a simple question of whether or not the police are or are not sectarian - this is not a simple 'fact'. There are a number of different ways and levels at which they may or may not be sectarian:

1) proportionality of the perceived religion of security force members
2) ideas and attitudes of security force personnel
3) operational policy
4) perceptions of the populations being policed
It seems that often when people are debating the sectarianism of the security forces they are addressing different aspects of policing. For example, one person might say the RUC is sectarian because of its policies while someone else suggests that it is not because of the attitudes and ideas of its members. It is useful to engage with any putative sectarianism in terms of all of the different dimensions outlined above.


At the level of proportionality, there is no doubt that the RIR and RUC are 'sectarian' in the sense that they are almost exclusively Protestant. (This question is less apposite in the case of the British Army whose personnel are neither 'Protestant' nor 'Catholic' in Northern Ireland ethno-political terms.) The population of Northern Ireland is approximately 43% Catholic and 56% Protestant. The percentage of Catholics in the RIR is 4% and in the RUC 7.4% [42] There is an undeniable and problematic disparity between the proportion of Catholics in the security forces and their numbers in the general population.

There are a number of factors which explain this situation. One of the most obvious is the sectarian history of the security forces which has been discussed already. There is also some evidence of discrimination against Catholic members by other members of the security forces (Brewer and Magee 1991: 142-144). There is also obviously a suggestion of particular focus by paramilitary groups on Catholic members of the security forces. This may be simply because they are easier targets for Republican paramilitaries since they are more likely to live in or visit or be known in 'Catholic' areas. It may also be because paramilitaries have deliberately targetted Catholics in the police in order to further sectarianise the conflict in Northern Ireland. Either way this situation makes it especially difficult for the security forces to recruit Catholic members. Whatever the process involved, the security forces continue to be starkly 'sectarian' in terms of the perceived identity of their personnel.

It is also clear, however, that addressing the sectarian disparity between Catholic and Protestant members of the security forces is no panacea for harassment. Some interviewees suggested that Catholic security force members might not harass any less:

There's also the aspect of the 'Catholic Cop' thing. It seems over the last five years in Derry, from what I can see most of the cops who harass most of the time are Catholic - very Catholic names - they're actually far more into harassing people and picking out individuals -than the Protestant cops, I suppose you can call them. The Protestant cops are all standing round laughing and the Catholic cop will go over do all the searching - that's true. I don't know if that's only applicable to Derry. (Interviewee: Derry)

Thus increasing the proportion of Catholics in the security forces is not in itself a guarantee of increasing the confidence of the Catholic community in policing. However, increasing the number of Catholics would appear to be a necessary condition for such an increase in confidence. As long as the huge disparity between Protestant / Catholic members remains, there will remain a difference in the relationship between the security forces and the Protestant and Catholic populations whatever their particular criticisms or lack of criticisms of policing policy.

Ideas and attitudes of security force personnel

At the level of ideas and attitudes the evidence is much more contradictory. The RUC themselves are adamant that the force is not endemically sectarian (Masterson 1993a, b). Brewer and Magee support the idea that the RUC is not routinely sectarian:

The RUC is not selective or partisan in the enforcement of the law. The professional ethos of impartiality which imbues police management has affected the discourse and attitudes of many rank-and-file members of the RUC, although not all, but an even greater number act impartially, being able to divorce their opinions from their conduct. This is true/or Catholic and Protestant members.
(1992: 271)

However, other commentators have suggested that the RUC and other security forces are routinely sectarian in a way which informs public perception (Farrell 1983; Murray 1993). Many of our respondents echoed these views:
I suppose I could say that having vulgar tasteless jokes said to you by the British Army is a form of harassment. I mean they are 'supposed' to be here to protect and help us. The RUC can be 'bastards' at times but nothing which I would be totally disgusted with, like the British army's sick, sad jokes or remarks. Maybe it's because I'm Catholic' (Catholic Woman: Belfast)
Like this respondent, many people distinguished between the behaviour of different officers and different forces. This implies that individual attitudes and practices do make a difference. It is the flipside of the 'few bad apples' thesis which is routinely used to explain security force misconduct. This is really a 'few good apples' thesis: the acceptance that there a number of genuine officers but that these are incapable of redeeming a whole 'rotten barrel'. It also suggests that the efforts of individual police and soldiers do often make an important difference. By implication it suggests that at least some harassment happens because there is no 'older' or 'less sectarian' or 'less bigoted' officer to intervene, not necessarily because the security forces are endemically and institutionally sectarian.

Operational Policy

It seems undeniable that Protestant and Catholic areas are policed in different ways. There are of course other structuring factors in this: rural areas are policed in a different way from urban areas; working class areas are policed in a different way from middle class areas; areas with a high level of political violence are policed in a different way from those with lower levels and so on. However, as a generalisation, the difference between the policing of Protestant and Catholic areas holds good. This is again sectarian in one sense of the word - whatever the reasons for the difference, the difference itself is sectarian.

In addition there is evidence that a whole sector of the policing apparatus - the UDR/RIR - has been used specifically to police Republicans. In 1990, the commander of the UDR Brigadier Charles Ritchie admitted that the UDR did not brief patrols looking for 'Protestant terrorists' (Irish Times 20/2/1990). By implication the UDR was solely concerned with policing the Catholic community. This is clearly structurally sectarian, whatever the attitudes of the soldiers involved. CAJ is not aware that this policing has changed since the reconstitution of the UDR as the RIR.

There are further problems with perceptions of practice - what might be called the orientation of policing. Very powerful symbols of differential policing are presented if there is a disputed march through a Catholic area and the police face local Catholic residents and turn their backs on the marchers - this leaves little ambiguity as to who is being protected and who is being controlled. Similarly, it is particularly telling if the 'ring of steel' police and army roadblocks around Belfast only stop cars coming out of Catholic areas and not cars going in. This is even more stark in periods when loyalists are killing more people than republicans. Once again the security forces appear to be protecting the wider community from people in particular Catholic areas and yet doing nothing to protect people in those same areas even when they seem to be under great threat of attack (O Docherty 1993)

There is a key difference in perceptions here. There is a general acceptance that Catholic and Protestant areas are policed in a different way. However, one analysis suggests that this is a consequence of attitudes within those areas while another would say that this is itself a policy decision. In essence, one says that the differential policing of Catholic areas is a cause of sectarianism and the other that it is a consequence of it: the former suggests that policing is itself sectarian, the latter that it responds to sectarian reality.

Perceptions of the populations policed

We saw in the discussion of harassment that the perceptions of the public are a key to understanding what harassment is. In Northern Ireland - whatever the police and army actually do - the perceptions of the policed are a part of the process of the sectarianisation of policing. At this level there is no doubt that substantial sections of the Catholic population and its spokespersons and social and political institutions believe that policing is sectarian. (This does not, of course, preclude similar opinions among Protestants. Accusations of anti-Protestant bias are also made by Protestant people as we see in the next chapter.)

The perception of anti-Catholic harassment was confirmed by the responses to our questionnaire. Certainly many respondents felt that they had been harassed because of their being identified as 'Catholic' or coming from 'Catholic' areas:

Name and age asked to delay me. Car searched. Police called or no reason by the Army. Stopped because of a Catholic name and going to a Catholic area. (Working Class Catholic Woman: Newry and Mourne)

On Thursday 11 March, 1 was walking home and the British Army were on the streets stopping cars. I was walking, minding my own business, when a soldier said to me, 'Hello, Sexy'. Ifelt embarrassed and wouldn't look at them. Then he replied, 'Don't speak to us, the 'Ra might hear you'. This kind 0/abuse happens every day in our Catholic community. (Working Class Catholic Woman: Derry)

Harassed in a car park after a disco in Portrush, verbal abuse, threats of physical violence. Further heightened when we revealed our town name (a predominantly Catholic area) -further delay - questioned for circa 60 minutes. (Catholic Man: Moyle)

Very often this can be related to a perception by the Catholic community that the security forces are sympathetic to Loyalism. Catholic respondents often saw the security forces as more committed to pursuing Catholics than Protestants and lacking in even-handedness in the way in which they implement the law:

I live in an area that I believe is majority Catholic. This area is subject every year to Orange Order marches which I find offensive. This opinion is shared by everyone I know who is Catholic. While I was on the Main Street of Crumlin I ripped down a small poster/or a march which was on a lamp post. The police spotted this and asked me to get into their car, I was asked/or a great many details including questions about my parents. I was told I could be prosecuted/or malicious damage (or some similar term). An RUC officer then came to our house, I had to go to the local RUC station with my father to discuss the action. I then received a visit from the Antrim Juvenile Officer. Although it could be argued this was mostly my own fault I felt that I was unfairly picked on since the poster itself was illegally placed. I was informed that the reason the issue was so serious was that I could have created more trouble if a Protestant had seen me taking the poster down i.e. that a fight would have ensued. I felt and still do/eel that this was an excuse. I had no wish to start any trouble I was simply angered by the poster. This may seem a minor incident but it damaged my opinion of the RUC severely and I no longer consider them a/air and impartial force, in fact far from it. This incident was brought up 5 or 6 times afterwards at checkpoints and while waiting on the street etc. The police seemed to consider it criminal. I would also like to know why the incident was deemed so serious that I had a visit from the An trim Juvenile Officer/or a very large area (An trim is five mile from Crumlin). While I in no way claim this is a major act of harassment I do consider it harassment and it has annoyed me. (Middle Class Catholic Man: Antrim)

There is a similar reluctance to report harassment because of a perception of sectarian bias inside the security forces:

[Reporting harassment is] only a waste of time cause no-one is on our side and it happens to everyone - mostly Catholics. (Working Class Catholic Woman: Magherafelt)

Thus many Catholic respondents felt that they had been policed and harassed in a specifically sectarian way: that their community was policed - and harassed - in a particular way simply because it was identified by the security forces as 'Catholic' in some way. This perception involves a complex notion of a 'Catholic' community which is much more than a confessional label. However some respondents did perceive specifically religious sectarianism to be the reason for harassment:

In my area, the British Army always set up checkpoints on all routes to our local chapel just before Mass time, so that a reasonable proportion of the congregation arrives late. Always feeling uneasy while the British Army are present on the streets when I'm walking is another pressure. They frequently shout unpleasant comments and leave me feeling very threatened and vulnerable. (Working Class Catholic Woman: Dungannon)

However most harassment of Catholics as Catholics was not directly linked to religious belief or practice in this way. This harassment was perceived to be the consequence of the way that 'Catholic' becomes a generic term for a whole range of religious, political and cultural identities. Thus, for some people the harassment focused on their Irish identity:

I was once assaulted by a pair of British soldiers at the bottom 0/my street. I was coming home from the shop when one o/the soldiers shouted to me, 'Irish Pig'. I turned round and told him to, 'Fuck off', then they came up to me and asked me what I had said. I said it again and one of the soldiers held me by the hair and the other head butted me on the nose. The reason I didn't report it was because I was afraid of further harassment. (Catholic Man: Derry)

Other respondents clearly felt that harassment was associated with their GAA connections:

On leaving the local Gaelic Football club, i/the forces are stopping on the road outside we are usually pulled over because they know we were at the club. We would be pulled over and the car would be searched including the boot and our football bags. All occupants names taken and addresses and where we are going now.
Sometimes soldiers would even aim the gun at us in jest but it is quite intimidating because there has been occasions when allegedly their finger slipped such as in Aughnacloy when an innocent Catholic was shot dead when attending a match on the Monaghan side of the border.
There has been occasions when the soldier has placed his gun on the ground and offered me out of the car to fight. (Working Class Catholic Man: Omagh)

I am a member of the local GAA club and on several occasions I have been harassed because of who lam with. Many of my club-mates have been physically assaulted and have been subject to verbal, provocative an sectarian abuse. The club changing rooms have been broken into by British Army Paras and Royal Marines and vandalised and on one occasion one soldier defecated on the floor hallway. (Working Class Catholic Man: Dungannon)

This data is a reminder that in Northern Ireland the notions of being Catholic and Protestant are not quite the simple definitions of religious identification they seem. For example, we have seen how the identity 'Catholic' correlates with 'Irishness' as a national identity; nationalism and Republicanism as political identities; and a host of other socio-cultural identities besides. Often when someone suggests they are being harassed by the security forces because they are 'Catholic', the cue is not their religious belief but rather one of these other identities. For example, some respondents felt that they were being harassed because of their GAA connections; this was perceived to happen because of the 'Irishness' of the GAA rather than its 'Catholicness'. While the membership of the GAA is overwhelmingly 'Catholic', it is a politico-cultural and sporting organisation rather than a religious one. This harassment seems more concerned with the fact that these people are involved in such an organisation rather than the fact that they are religiously Catholic.

Thus sectarian harassment involves a complex of perceptions and identities. These cannot be simply or unproblematically subsumed under the category 'Catholic'. Nevertheless this remains a better shorthand than any other for sectarian identity especially since it is the label most frequently employed by Catholics themselves to describe their identity and the perceived reason for their experience of harassment.


There is a widespread belief among the Catholic community in Northern Ireland that policing is inherently sectarian. Many Catholic people expect the administration of justice to be biased against them in a sectarian way. Moreover our research suggests that almost 50% of young Catholic people actually experience harassment by the security forces at some time. The security forces have an immediate responsibility to address these perceptions. Steps should be taken to deal with any practice of sectarian harassment. Mechanisms must also be put in place to make sure that, when sectarian harassment does occur, there is an effective remedy for people who have been treated in this way. In the longer term, there is no doubt that the practice - intentional or otherwise - of arming one side of the population in Northern Ireland to police the other is inherently divisive. In a deeply divided society it reproduces and reinforces existing tensions. It is unlikely that perceptions of sectarian harassment will ever be removed completely so long as the security forces remain sectarian - even if this is only in make-up and not in attitude and practice.


[40]The officer class in the RUC remained predominantly Protestant after partition as, of course, did the whole force. The officer class in the newly established Garda Siochana, the police force in the Irish Free State, however, was predominantly Catholic, as was the whole force.
[41] It bears emphasis again that Catholics were under-represented among our respondents. Only 30.8% of respondents identified as Catholic. The 1991 census suggests that around 43% of the whole population of Northern Ireland is Catholic.
[42] The Home Office Inspectorate of Constabulary suggests that some 860 out of a total of 11 690 officers are Catholics. This gives an overall figure of 7.4% for the RUC. This breaks down as 7.9% of 8 480 regular officers and 6.2% of 3 160 reservists (1994). These figures a slightly higher than the 7% of regulars and 3% of reservists that Mapstone attributes to the Chief Constable (Mapstone 1992:185).

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The focus on Catholics and policing in Northern Ireland has sometimes suggested that Protestant/security force relations are unproblematic. There has been an erroneous assumption that, because there was more obvious tension and debate around the policing of the Catholic community, Protestants are perfectly happy with the way that they were policed. While the stereotype of the RUC was of a 'Protestant police force for a Protestant people', there have long been complaints from within the Protestant population in Northern Ireland about harassment and unequal policing (APTI 1990: 19-25; Bell 1990; Justice For All 5, 6; Whiterock Citizen's Inquiry 1994; McGimpsey 1993). A number of our interviewees and respondents threw further light on the development of Protestant/security force relationships:

Going back before the conflict, I suppose the Shankill would have been like any other working class area in Great Britain. There would have been a local bobby but it would have depended on how that person policed the area. I remember some of them, these policemen were hard men and that's how they ruled, they ruled with fear, threatened people and stuff like that. And you always had a clique of hard men in the area who would have fought with the police and that sort of stuff. Generally relationships would have been good because people wouldn 't have been drawn into anything because crime rates were low but if you had been hanging around street corners, there were always tensions with the police.... Throughout the history of the troubles on the Shankill, harassment has always been there. It goes up and it goes down depending on the political climate. The Anglo-Irish Agreement only had people speaking out against it because then they thought that, 'the Brits don't want us' so now we can speak out. But the representatives had covered it up for years and said nothing about it.... At one stage in the early Seventies the Army always seemed to be the people who were at the front but then after that whenever Labour returned in 1974, the RUG started to come to the fore and the UDR started to come to the fore through what they called Ulsterisation with the onus on the UDR and the police and the Army only there as support. So in the last 25 years there has been quite a lot of conflict between Protestants and the RUC. (Interviewee: Belfast)
So there have also been long-standing tensions between sections of the Protestant population and the security forces. For example, the first RUC member killed in the current political conflict, Victor Arbuckle, was shot dead by Loyalists on the Shankill Road. In the early phase of British Army involvement in Northern Ireland, there was much more antagonism between Loyalists and the Army than Republicans (Sunday Times Insight Team 1972: 160-8). Some people see this tension as remaining fairly constant:
Harassment has been going on in the Shankill - even before the start of the troubles - it's been going on from the very start.... I mean look at the number of Loyalist prisoners, the majority of them put away by UDR and RUG men and British Army. They were never anybody's friend, it wasn 't as if there was some collusion ist tactic to keep them out of prison. The RUC have always tried, not very successfully some would say, but they have always tried to appear impartial. So they have always come down hard on the Protestant community.... I think that the pattern has been - in areas like the Shankill - where you have a working class community, it's more likely that a lot of people in the area are going to support or join the paramilitaries. And a lot of people who don't support the paramilitaries have a good chance of going into what you would call 'ordinary crime' like break-ins in shops, so they would always come into conflict with the police -for whatever reason. But because there was a high level of paramilitary activity the police always seemed to be taking the heavy hand and would have used harassment and stuff like that for to try and get people to become informers. It just seems to have been turned on and off at certain times. (Interviewee: Belfast)
However, there is a common acceptance in Protestant working class areas, that the real turning point in Protestant/security force relations was the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985:
I think it all changed at the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Like in my area it would be mixed - predominantly Protestant - about I in 4 would be Catholic and at the time of the Anglo-Irish two Policemen who were neighbours were advised to leave - there was a lot of that going on although you tended to think that it was only happening in working class areas.... I think it was a turning point. I think there was a general view all over that it was a Protestant police force for a Protestant people and that it was only the Catholics were against the state but there's more and more incidents of young Protestants who are starting to be harassed by the police, you know, they're stopping and asking them their names, see them standing on street corners, you know, trying to break them up. Basically the same kind of things that have been happening for years in Catholic areas. You see Protestants always believed that the police couldn't be that bad, you know, they're exaggerating. But the same people who were saying that when they get their house raided by the police - I mean the police have become a professional force in the sense that there's no difference between police methods raiding a Protestant house and a Catholic house. It's brought home to them. (Interviewee: Derry)
Certainly there have been increasing reports of harassment m Protestant areas since 1985. Helsinki Watch noted the specific problem of security force harassment in Protestant areas (1992: 30-31). Rioting in loyalist areas in 1993 and 1994 was also linked to police harassment'.[43] Thus, while tensions between Protestants and the security forces may have been underplayed, there has been a history of conflict which cannot be ignored.

Harassment and the Protestant Community in Northern Ireland

Our research confirmed that the perceived harassment of Protestants is an ongoing problem. Over a quarter of the respondents who identified harassment were Protestant. (23% identified as Protestant while a substantial proportion of the 'neither religion' were also 'Protestant' in terms of perceived religion.) Some respondents illustrated the widely held perception of anti-Protestant bias in the RUC:

When I was a juvenile I was lifted by the RUC for a case of minor theft. At the time I was harassed physically by a member of the RUC who used physical violence on me. I was also mentally harassed while journeying to and while waiting in the police station. The officers dealing with me seemed to consider this quite amusing at the time.... It is not worthwhile reporting minor harassment if you come from a Protestant background because you are just not dealt with seriously and there are no adequate public organisations to give you backing while Catholics are treated with 'kid gloves'. (Protestant Man: Belfast)
Other respondents who identified as 'Protestant' recognised problems with policing even though their families were involved in the security forces:
The people I hung around with were not liked by the RUC so I got some verbal abuse from the police car whenever the PC saw me anywhere in the town. He threatened to drag me up an alleyway and beat me up. He also pushed me into the police car and drove around the town. I was 17 then and I have never been in any trouble. My parents and other members of my family are or were in the security forces. (Protestant Man: Limavady)
There is a belief that much of this harassment is a policy rather than the errant behaviour of a number of officers:
There's a certain policy to harassment and there's no question that it's there. They agree with harassment on individuals and stuff like that -stop and search and doing their houses all the time and things like that. One of the other things they would do would be tactics that the British Army used all around the world in the days of the great British Empire was going - they used it against the Mau Mau and people like that -would be to terrorise the community in the hope that people would stop supporting the terrorists. There's a lot of psychological stuff They would actually go into streets and actually raid houses that they know there's nobody involved in but they know that people in the street's involved. And they would say we're here looking for Joe Bloggs. Joe Bloggs doesn't live here, he lives across the street. Ah, but he's been using your address. All that does is turn people against people. People say you can't go on living here because our lives are in jeopardy, not only from the RUC but from the Provos and everyone else. It can work for the RUC to get informers and that sort of thing. So there's a logic to what they're doing. But then the other stuff when you get people driving up footpaths or you get people jumping out of Land Rovers and actually beating people ... that's all down to power. (Interviewee: Belfast)
While these kind of problems tend to affect Protestant working class areas most, Protestant middle class people are not immune from harassment:
I was once stopped by a member of the British Army along with two of my friends as we were walking into Lisburn. The man was, we felt, unnecessarily taking down details such as our date of birth, phone number and addresses. Then a few days later one of the girls I was with received a threatening chain letter from one of the boys in the army which was very upsetting. I think it is ridiculous that such information was first of all taken from us and violated in such a way. Thankfully my friend's mother took action but the men still have these details of us. (Protestant Man: Craigavon)
There are also specific problems with the reporting of security force harassment from within the Protestant community:
Protestants are reluctant to come forward. I remember being badly beaten in 1973 by the Paratroopers. But when I went to my local Councillors and the local MP there was no one wanted to know me. Because they said you are showing up an arm of the state, you're saying these people are wrong and all you're doing is supporting the Republican argument. I said I'm not interested in whether I'm supporting a Republican argument, my face is lying open and I've got a fractured skull and you're telling me to keep my mouth shut. There has always been this sort of pretence has gone on, it's always an undercurrent but it's never come to the fore. But since the Anglo-Irish Agreement people are less afraid - maybe afraid isn't the right term - they're willing to speak out about the RUC or the British Army about the atrocities and also the injustices being done against the Protestant community. (Interviewee: Belfast)
Some of the problems in terms of the tension between 'ordinary' and emergency policing are also evident in Protestant areas:
All the RUC are interested in is security. And they say that we can't afford to have officers just left to do community policing. If we need them on security checks, we need to send them out then they're R UC Officers after all. I think that there's a case for splitting the force some way.... The RUC believe that they're right. I went to ... Stormont for a talk. The RUC was there - very nice people - one was a PR man and the other was an Assistant Chief Constable. And when I started speaking, the Assistant Chief Constable jumped down my throat. I said I'm not here to run the RUC down, I'm here to tell you the facts. I don't have any qualms about the RUC.... Irrespective of whether the perception [of the Loyalist community] is right or wrong, it's there. And if you don't do something about it, things are going to get worse. He said it's all propaganda. I said, if that's what you want to say, that's fair enough. But you bury your head in the sand and you're going to end up with the community in Northern Ireland against you in total because you're not going to be able to walk down the Shankill. You're going to need Army to go with you.... What they said was totally out of order, it wasn't reality. They were saying that the RUC were accepted everywhere, including the Falls, and that people are always going to them, they don't go to Sinn Fein or the paramilitaries, they always come to them.... They don't believe it but they were there to do a PR job. (Interviewee: Belfast)
This point about accepting the seriousness of community concerns about harassment raises more general questions about the refusal by all the security forces to acknowledge the seriousness of the tensions between themselves and some Protestant areas. It confirms the problem of the continuous denial of there being a problem. There is some question as to whether such denial is genuine or rhetorical:
I think that while the RUC actually believe their own propaganda, you 're not going to achieve anything. When they actually believe that they're a paramilitary force which has been put in place to defeat terrorism, they don't see themselves as a police force which is there to uphold civil law. They just see themselves now as a paramilitary force.... It involves more than the RUC, it involves NIO policy. The NIO created the monster. They're the people who put the fear of God into the [RUC] whenever they're giving them all these seminars and they're the people who demon ise the community - they're no longer your people - you have to be impartial and then they end up being overzealous.... The NIO are in control of it and it's they need to start talking to people in the community ... they need to find out what the reality is. Until they do that they are not going to change their minds. They do think they're in control. The RUC will tell you that they're in control that if they weren't doing their job things would be worse in Northern Ireland. And that might be so but they aren't doing a good job. (Interviewee: Belfast)
So, whether the denial of harassment is rhetorical or based on genuine belief, it is a serious problem. Until it is addressed, the negative consequences of widespread harassment will continue to affect Protestant/security force relations:
I wouldn 't have any qualms about the UDA people being harassed. If you're a member of any of those organisations you set yourself up for a certain amount of harassment. If you get harassed, you can complain about it, I don't dispute that. But what I'm saying is, that wouldn't be my main concern. My main concern is with the rest of the community. What they're doing is they're driving people into the arms of paramilitaries because they're doing this. I think that there are other ways ... but the problem is that they now believe that they're a paramilitary force that deals with political violence and nothing else. And they don't see themselves as anything else. That's what the problem is, they harass everybody.... In the equation about more security, you end up with greater harassment. Because if the police saturate the streets, they are there for one reason, and that's to harass people. Because that's the only way that security can work.... When the police go in there they're going to start harassing people, they're going to stop people in cars who look suspicious, they're going to stop people with pony tails or baseball caps. They're going to stop them and then they're going to start asking questions. They're going to start getting snottery with them and then the people that they're questioning are going to get snottery and then that leads to other things. When people call for more security they don't realise that more security means harassment. There's no question of that. You can't have one without the other. When you increase security, you're increasing harassment. The only way that it can work is by actually threatening people. (Interviewee: Belfast)
There is no doubt that this perception that more security means more harassment is real in many Protestant areas, especially in Belfast and Derry. Our research suggests that the perception is based on a changing reality: that there is an increasing level of security force harassment in Protestant - especially Loyalist -working class areas. It is also clear that - just as in the many Catholic areas -allegations of security force harassment are being played down or dismissed as politically-motivated. However, our research makes it clear that the perception is real and widespread in Protestant areas. Concern about such harassment clearly extends well beyond Loyalist paramilitary groups. Harassment in Protestant areas appears to drive people towards paramilitary groups rather than curtail the activities of such groups.


There are obvious differences between Protestant and Catholic perceptions of harassment. The volume of complaint coming from the Catholic community is simply greater and more widespread. Complaints of harassment tend to come from Loyalist working class areas. The perceived reason for harassment is also different. Many Protestants see RUC harassment as inimical to the force, while many Catholics see it as endemic. Protestants tend to blame the Government or the Anglo-Irish Agreement or the RUC hierarchy for forcing RUC Officers to harass against their will while Catholics tend to blame individual security force personnel as well. Protestants often make sense of harassment in terms of political influences which have forced the RUC to harass Protestants and 'go soft' on Catholics. Protestant grievances tend to focus on the RUC in particular while Catholic grievances are at least as critical of the British Army and the RIR.

Thus it is clear that the security force harassment of Protestants and Catholics is not the same. This said, it is also obvious that the harassment of Protestants is a serious issue. A very substantial proportion of our respondents who identified harassment were Protestant. Interviewees from the Protestant community confirmed ongoing problems with harassment. In short, there is clearly a need for specific concern with regard to the policing of Protestants and Protestant areas.

The issue of the harassment of Protestants must be addressed as part of the wider process of ending security force harassment. It is particularly important to remember that problems with the policing of one community are not solved by the increasing harassment of the other. There is often a perception by the British Government that complaint from 'both sides' of the community in Northern Ireland is a manifestation of good government rather than particularly bad government. This version of the 'equality of misery' approach is not an acceptable way of securing the legitimacy of the administration of justice. Harassing Protestants more can never be an adequate response to complaints of harassment in the Catholic community.

Whatever the level of historical 'alienation' of Protestants from the security forces, this alienation has grown substantially since the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. The concommitant tensions between the Protestant community and both the state and the RUC have transformed community/police relations in many Protestant areas. In some areas - particularly urban working class areas - the alienation of the Protestant community from the RUC is almost total. While relations between the Protestant community and the British Army and the RIR appear much less problematic, they sometimes give rise to concern. Any serious attempt to address the question of harassment and the security forces in Northern Ireland must include an analysis of the specific experiences of the Protestant community and a programme to address the increasing levels of harassment it experiences.


[43]For example, co-ordinated 'rioting' by Loyalists in June 1993 and March 1994 was explained as a response to the, 'harassment of Protestants by the RUC Special Branch' (Irish News 21 /3/1994).

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Our quantitative research found evidence of widespread and systemic harassment by the security forces in Northern Ireland. This evidence was reinforced by our supplementary qualitative research. Overall the research highlighted the specific problem of harassment of young people. It also suggested that there are continuing concerns about the prevalence of security force harassment in the Catholic community. Moreover the research identified increasing complaint of harassment in Protestant areas. Our research also identified a serious, if largely unacknowledged, problem of sexist harassment throughout the security forces. There were also problems with the harassment of other communities, particularly the minority ethnic and Gay and Lesbian communities. In short the research suggests that there is a very serious and widespread problem of harassment from the security forces in Northern Ireland.

Our research suggests that broad sectors of Northern Ireland society feel that the 'security forces are not policing their areas or communities in the interests of those areas and communities. This perception cannot be simply dismissed as the biased opinion of a few malcontents or extremists. Substantial numbers of citizens in Northern Ireland feel that the police are against them rather than for them. Moreover many feel that the police do not protect them but rather act as if they are protecting other communities or areas from them. Until people are convinced that the security forces are in their community in order to service them rather than someone else, the perception that there are serious problems with policing will remain. Our research suggests that the security forces are a long way from changing - or even addressing - this perception. In short there is a crisis of confidence in the security forces among broad swathes of the Northern Ireland public which is rarely recognised by the security forces or by Government.

The quantitative and qualitative research also revealed a profound lack of confidence in the efficacy of existing mechanisms for reporting harassment among people who feel that they have been harassed. Respondents evidenced very little confidence in either statutory or non-governmental mechanisms. This is particularly worrying in the context of the widespread security force harassment identified. We believe that improving the situation involves changes in police practice and changes in the practice of statutory monitoring agencies. It also involves changing practice by individuals and the wider 'human rights community' in Northern Ireland.

It is clear then that severe problems with policing in Northern Ireland remain. Despite the movement of policing policy since the mid-1970s towards 'normalisation' and 'Ulsterisation', a 'state of emergency' continues in Northern Ireland. This means that policing is unlikely to be 'normal' - at least in terms of the model which applies elsewhere in the United Kingdom and Ireland. There is an obvious difference between the situation in Northern Ireland and that in other parts of the United Kingdom. In the rest of the UK most of the discourse on police harassment is couched in terms of encouraging the police to do their duty more effectively in situations where there are perceived to be problems with police harassment -whether this is harassment in terms of race or gender or whatever. The analysis tends to be one of encouraging the police to police in a more equitable manner; to take, say, complaints about racist or sexist harassment seriously (whether these are complaints about harassment by the police or anyone else) and to investigate them with the same rigour as other crimes. However in Northern Ireland there are sections of the population which define the very existence of the police as illegitimate and therefore regard everything they do as illegitimate. Moreover there are sections of the population which define anti-police violence as legitimate and by implication suggest that this is the only, or the most appropriate, means of dealing with police harassment. Thus their arguments are couched in terms of doing away with the police and army - literally and institutionally -rather than encouraging change in terms of police and army practices. This reality is more obviously theorised in terms of the Republican movement but it is also implied in some Loyalist arguments.

This situation makes normal policing no easy task. However it is disingenuous (or as Clare Palley put it, 'hypocritical conduct') on behalf of Government to pretend that the situation is one of normality. It is untenable to justify human rights abuses with reference to an 'emergency situation' while simultaneously denying that this emergency situation exists. Undoubtedly the political and military conflict in Northern Ireland makes policing Northern Ireland singularly difficult. However, whatever the degree of abnormality, there are certain basic rights and liberties - established by international human rights instruments, national government and the security forces themselves - which must be observed. If these are not being observed, then there is a serious problem in terms of the abuse of human rights and civil liberties - whatever extenuating circumstances might obtain. Put simply, human rights abuses - and lower human rights standards - should never be justified in terms of necessity or emergency.

Our research makes it clear that such human rights abuses are very widely perceived to occur. In itself this should be enough to cause Government in general, and the security forces in particular, serious concern. The research also makes it clear that existing complaints mechanisms are perceived to be woefully inadequate. This should cause even greater concern since it supports the notion that there is no remedy 'within the system'. However we were able to identify positive aspects of existing practice and suggest more effective ways to complain within the existing system. We were also able to recommend some basic changes which would vastly improve the situation.

In essence our conclusion is that the key actors need to take the crisis in policing in Northern Ireland seriously. They need to accept that the appropriate response to accusations of harassment is not counter-accusation or denial but a serious attempt to address the conditions which cause such accusations to be made. We have illustrated that different areas and communities in Northern Ireland are sometimes convinced that the police are against them rather than for them. We have also illustrated that perceptions and allegations of harassment are the metre of the problem. There is little point in a sterile debate around competing definitions of harassment. If large numbers of people perceive there to be a problem with policing then there is a problem with policing. It is palpably the case that there are widespread perceptions and allegations of security force harassment in Northern Ireland. In consequence Government, the security forces, political parties, and the human rights community need to accept that there is a profound problem.

Alongside recognition of the seriousness of the overall problem we need to address certain specific issues. The first of these is the 'tolerance' of 'minor harassment'. Normalisation means that many people feel that, while they have been harassed, their harassment was not 'serious enough' to warrant complaint. What constitutes 'serious enough' is not stated but it implies a separation between normal' harassment which is tolerable and more serious harassment which is not. We have to encourage a 'de-normalisation' of this - if people feel they have been harassed in a wrongful and/or illegal way they should be encouraged to report the incident just as if it were an example of 'more serious' harassment.

There is also a need to address the question of non-action by the security forces as a form of harassment. This involves the security forces failing to intervene when one section of the community is being harassed by another. While this has not been a major issue in terms of sectarian intercommunal conflict in Northern Ireland, it has been addressed in other situations (GLC 1984: 12-19). It has also been an issue in terms of policing and women and the Gay community and minority ethnic communities in Northern Ireland. It seems likely that there are equally important questions around non-action and harassment and the wider community in Northern Ireland. Both Protestants and Catholics have complained about non-action but this has not been seen in the context of harassment. This needs to be re-thought. Of course the security forces in Northern Ireland are in a particularly difficult situation since they can be criticised for both acting and not acting. However non-response by the security forces to harassment by non-state organisations or individuals is a crucial part of the complex matrix of harassment in Northern Ireland.

We also need to discard the idea that harassment can be understood and dealt with solely at the level of the behaviour of individual members of the security forces. There are a number of obvious structural problems which make 'normal policing' impossible in Northern Ireland. These involve much more than the attitudes and behaviour of individual soldiers or police people. For as long as these structural conditions obtain, the system of policing in Northern Ireland will retain a predilection to harassment, whatever changes and/or safeguards are put in place:

1. The militarisation of policing. So long as the army - and a paramilitary police force - are used for policing, there will be problems with policing.
2.The sectarianisation of policing. So long as there is a sectarian bias in the make-up of the RUC and the RIR - there will be problems with policing.
3.The bureaucratisation of policing. So long as there is an absence of local democratic control exercised over the security forces, there will be a problem with policing.
4.The ghettoisation of policing. So long as the security forces do not come from - and live among - the communities they most often police, there will be a problem with policing.


While the aforementioned structural conditions remain in place, a tendency towards harassment will also remain in place. Certainly, public confidence in the security forces will not be as complete as it might be if these conditions were removed. However we have signalled some of the positive elements in the existing practice of the human rights community. Even within the confines of the existing system, there are sometimes effective remedies. There are also certain changes - some small and interpersonal, others larger and structural - which would increase the confidence of different communities in the security forces and improve the performance of complaints mechanisms. We recommend that these changes are made, whatever other conditions obtain. Each of these would address the issue of harassment at different levels:

1. We found that the security forces in Northern Ireland are very under-researched. There should be further research in the area of the security forces and harassment. Our research makes no claim to be definitive and there should be further in-depth research into the different areas we addressed. In particular we believe that the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights should address this issue. We recommend that the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights undertakes detailed further research on the issue of harassment and the security forces. The security forces themselves should also consider commissioning independent research. A model for this already exists in the Police and People in London research which the Policy Studies Institute undertook for the Metropolitan Police.
2. We found there to be a striking lack of knowledge about basic rights and complaints mechanisms in Northern Ireland - especially amongst young people. Information and publicity on complaints mechanisms must be improved. In particular, the human rights community should organise a campaign on rights directed at young people. This would raise awareness on rights and available remedies. Information on rights and remedies should be available through local community organisations as well as statutory organisations.
3. We found the existing systems of monitoring security force harassment woefully inadequate. There must be comprehensive monitoring of harassment by both statutory and non-governmental organisations. It is imperative that we establish reliable patterns of alleged and perceived harassment. Sufficient resources must be made available for this.
4. We found there to be strong reservations about both the capacity and the willingness of the statutory complaints mechanisms to address security force harassment. There must be more powerful and more independent statutory complaints mechanisms. These mechanisms should be democratised. They should also be able to engage in proactive intervention in addition to reacting to individual complaint. Independent complaints mechanisms are a necessary condition for both addressing and preventing harassment.
5. We found much evidence to suggest that there are serious problems with harassment at 'sites' created by emergency legislation - vehicle check points, stop and search and house searches. In the light of this evidence Government needs to re-examine the question of the necessity of such legislation. We recommend a parliamentary commission of inquiry to this end. Certainly consideration must be given to the repeal of relevant sections of emergency legislation. These issues are discussed at length in the CAJ's A briefing Paper on the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Bill (1991).

While many of the structural/institutional changes recommended above would improve the situation, they are not a panacea. The limitations of such changes should be recognised. Ultimately, security force harassment will disappear from Northern Ireland when the causes of security force harassment disappear. Poor relations between the security forces and sections of the public will continue in the absence of a political settlement which removes the support for non-state political violence existing in substantial sections of the population in Northern Ireland. As long as military solutions are engaged in pursuit of political problems, the tendency to harass will remain. Equally the same poor relations will continue for as long as the security forces feel under immediate and constant threat of violent attack. Harassment reinforces and reproduces these poor relations and the poor relations reinforce and reproduce harassment. Until this cycle is broken there will always be a predilection towards harassment.

However there also needs to be a less immediately tangible cultural change - an intrinsic part of the process of ending harassment is the creation of a 'culture of rights' in Northern Ireland. Human rights must be first recognised as existing and then cherished as a crucial part of human dignity. People must become aware of their rights and become angry when these rights are compromised. Of course human rights must also be guaranteed by government - in both theory and practice. Ultimately, however, human rights are guaranteed by an active citizenry who cherish every right they have and testify and resist every time those rights are violated.

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CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

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