CAIN Web Service

'Policing Northern Ireland: Conflict, legitimacy and reform'
by Aogán Mulcahy (2006)

[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
POLICING: [Menu] [Reading] [Summary] [Background] [Chronology] [Main_Pages] [Statistics_Security] [Statistics_Law&Order] [Sources]

Text: Aogán Mulcahy... Page Compiled: Brendan Lynn

The following chapter has been contributed by the author Aogán Mulcahy, with the permission the publisher, Willan Publishing. The views expressed in these extracts 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.
scan of book cover This chapter is from the book:

Policing Northern Ireland: Conflict, legitimacy and reform
by Aogán Mulcahy
Published by Willan Publishing, 2006

ISBN-13: 978-1-84392-072-4
ISBN-10: 1-84392-072-7

ISBN-13: 978-1-84392-073-1
ISBN-10: 1-84392-073-5

Cover photograph by Rex Features Ltd

Orders to local bookshops or:

Willan Publishing
Culmcott House
Mill Street, Uffculme
Cullompton, Devon
EX15 3 AT
United Kingdom
T: +44 (0) 1884 840337
F: +44 (0) 1884 840251
Web Site:

scan of book cover Published simultaneously in the USA and Canada by

Willan Publishing
c/o ISBS, 920 NE 58th Ave, Suite 300
Portland, Oregaon
97213-3786, US
T: +001(0) 503 287 3093
F: +001(0) 503 280 8832
Web Site:

This chapter is copyright Aogán Mulcahy (2006) and is included on the CAIN site by permission of Willan Publishing and the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of Willan Publishing. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.



Acknowledgments vii
List of tables ix
List of acronyms xi
Part I Introduction
1 The context of policing and legitimacy in Northern Ireland 3
Part II Policing the Conflict
2 Crisis, rehabilitation and normalization: reform and professionalization of the RUC 27
3 Policing history: the organizational memory of the RUC 47
4 Simultaneous surfeit and deficit: security policing, crime prevention and 'alternative justice' 66
Part III Policing the peace
5 Police reform as peace dividend: the debate over the future of the RUC 89
6 Visions of normality: peace and the reconstruction of policing 108
7 Resistance narratives: from lollipop protests to Drumcree 127
Part IV Police reform and conflict resolution
8 A New Beginning? The Patten Report on policing in Northern Ireland 149
9 Implementing the reform programme: the new institutional framework of policing 168
10 Conclusion: conflict, legitimacy and reform 189
References 204
Index 222



Chapter 6

Visions of normality: peace and
the reconstruction of policing


With the advent of police primacy, official government policy in Northern Ireland sought to normalize what was in effect a small-scale war. Following the ceasefires, this yielded a dilemma: given the enormous lengths to which it had gone to normalize the policing of conflict, how would it now normalize the policing of peace? The theme that the RUC was a normal force - embroiled in an abnormal context, armed and trained to a high degree, equipped with considerable powers, but essentially normal nonetheless - was often difficult to sustain during the conflict (see Chapter 4). The ceasefires gave the RUC an unparalleled opportunity to re-articulate its self-understanding as a ‘normal’ police force. This chapter examines the visions of normality that underpinned RUC discourse during this period.


Out of the shadows: promoting the RUC

Soon after the announcement of the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires, a massive public relations campaign got underway in Northern Ireland. To the tune of Van Morrison’s Days like this - and the closing lyrics from his evocative Coney Island, ‘Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time’ - the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) launched an extensive media campaign: ‘It’s time for the bright side’. On billboards everywhere, the towns of Crossgar, Arglass and Downpatrick were officially transformed into Happygar, Ardpint and Uppatrick. The RUC also seized this ‘opportunity to highlight, as never before, the all-round work of the Force’ (RUC Annual Report for 1994: 71), reflected in various crime prevention campaigns, as well as a campaign to promote a new confidential police telephone number with its accompanying caption: ‘Build the Peace - Support the RUC’.

Policing during the Troubles was always characterized by a high measure of secrecy. Although some aspects of police activity were extensively promoted, other aspects were the subject of denials, fabrications and other strategies of information control (Curtis 1984; Miller 1994a, 1994b). However, as the ceasefires took hold, any reticence the RUC may have practised quickly gave way to an eagerness to grasp the opportunities for promotionalism offered by the peace process. This ‘greater openness’ on the part of the RUC was epitomized by a ‘force information day’ in March 1995 at which senior RUC officers gave presentations on the work of a variety of departments to an invited audience of over 200 community representatives. The inclusion of a short presentation on the RUC’s Special Branch (which had primary responsibility for activities directed against paramilitary organizations) gives some indication of the significance of this event; it simply would have been inconceivable for this to occur at the height of the conflict. Following the ceasefires, Ronnie Flanagan, soon to become Chief Constable, also participated in live media debate on policing (for example, BBC1/Radio Ulster’s On Air on 17 January 1995), again, a distinctive break with the past. This strategy was also reflected at ground level in the greater willingness of operational officers to appear on television at a crime scene: ‘Before the ceasefires, had we had a murder out there, it was always very difficult for us to actually get a policeman to front the thing, to actually go on television. Purely and simply for security reasons, their own security...All that has eased greatly since the ceasefires’ (RUC superintendent).

The Inside the RUC television series was perhaps the most significant promotional measure undertaken by the RUC after the 1994 ceasefires. Filmed in 1995 and shown on Ulster Television (UTV) in January and February 1996, the format for its eight episodes was documentary-style: the producers filmed RUC officers in the course of their duties and allowed them to talk at length about their experiences; throughout, the programme makers are neither seen nor heard. The idea had been mooted by UTV in 1994, but the RUC had then turned it down. In 1995 UTV broached the subject again, and this time the RUC gave it their support. In this respect, the series exemplified the opportunities arising from the ceasefires: ‘The ceasefires that continued through 1995 created an excellent climate for the Force Information Centre to exercise a greater proactive role than was possible during 25 years of overt terrorism, and every opportunity was taken to promote the full range of RUC activities’ (RUC Annual Report for 1995:73). As one RUC press officer said, ‘Inside the RUC was a first for us, that was the first time we ever let any camera crews inside to actually film the police, talk to the police and let them talk.’ Moreover, the fact that the producer was from Dublin was viewed as a bonus by the RUC: ‘It lessened the fact that you'd have people saying "Here’s the RUC producing a programme on themselves", you know.’ The series generated considerable public interest, averaging a 53 per cent share of the Northern Irish viewing audience, and getting up to 67 per cent of the viewing audience (for the third episode). This is in contrast to the UTV average audience share of 43 per cent (data from UTV Press Office). Ironically, one of the initial difficulties facing the producers was a general reluctance among many officers to participate in the programme:

You know, the ceasefire was very new at that time, and if you go back to the beginning of [1995], and there was still a lot of policemen who said, ‘No, I wouldn't be prepared to do that.’ So it was a matter through my contacts getting policemen to feel confident enough to come forward and meet [the producer] and talk to [him] and get an idea of what he wanted to do. [Did you have to do a bit of cajoling?] Oh yes, I had to keep them encouraged, This is our chance to let people see what we do and talk, so what about it? C’mon and do it.’ (RUC press officer).

The series portrayed what can only be described as a positive account of post-ceasefire policing. For instance, in the ‘War or Peace?’ episode (filmed before the breakdown of the first IRA ceasefire, but aired on UTV on 26 February 1996 shortly after the Canary Wharf bombing), an RUC superintendent described the new policing climate: ‘Almost overnight, people were openly friendly to the police who would have been a bit guarded before that. And the young officers that I expected who would need to retrain have taken very quickly to this community policing. It’s exactly what they want to do.’ The series is also striking for its close reflection of the tenets of official discourse discussed in Chapter 3: sacrifice, hidden community support and accountability. All three elements feature prominently in the ‘XMG’ episode (UTV, 15 January 1996) through the comments of the RUC inspector with responsibility for policing Crossmaglen, a republican village in south Armagh. Describing the dangerousness of the district for members of the security forces, he focused on the deaths of his colleagues and the contribution these made to securing peace:

When one reflects over the last 25 years and what it has cost, the sacrifice the RUC, and indeed the army who are here to support us, has made. I mean in those 25 years, 56 police officers murdered in this sub-division alone, and 122 members of the security forces. That is a colossal sacrifice...That’s totally inexcusable, but if it’s the price for peace, then it’s the price we have to pay.

In another section of the programme, he mentioned the hidden community support that RUC officers received: ‘We don't treat the community in Crossmaglen as hostile. We do receive a collective anonymous support from the majority of the population in the town. They don't want to see the terrorists here.’ In a further statement, he defended the RUC’s record, dismissing criticisms of impartiality: ‘I certainly can't believe anyone could stand over and say that the RUC is a bigoted unionist force, I think that’s rubbish.’ Although the ‘XMG’ episode stands out for failing to show RUC officers in contact with members of the local community, the inspector still managed to present a positive image of local police-community relations. In the absence of dissenting voices, the comments of those featured in the programme carry the weight of fact and function to enhance the RUC’s status and reputation. Within this discourse of impartiality, the role of the RUC is simply to maintain the (neutral) rule of law, and intervene as necessary in the internecine tribal warfare between Catholics and Protestants. Thus the inspector featured in the ‘XMG’ episode described his role: 'Our primary aim, our main objective, is to bring normality to this area, and we feel we're working towards that at this point in time.' Quite what the inspector means by ‘normality’ is unclear. Given the enormous casualties suffered by the police in Crossmaglen, this might amount to nothing more than ‘an absence of violence’. But the use of this terminology also lends itself to the view that ‘normality’ speaks for itself, that there is one obvious, irrefutable and universally shared vision of normality that is beyond questioning, and certainly beyond politics. In the following section, I consider how idealized modes of police-community relations featured in the visions of normality articulated in RUC discourse.


Visions of normality

Through the conflict, the RUC maintained that its heavily militarized style of policing was thrust upon it as a means of self-preservation, and was necessary to enable it to carry out its duty to protect the Northern Ireland population from violence. As one NIO publication expressed it: ‘the RUC wants to be an unarmed, civilian-type police force’, but ‘the reality of the terrorist threat means that the force has had to be equipped with a variety of weapons to defend itself and the community’ (NIO 1989: 34). The advent of the ceasefires offered the RUC ‘a rare occasion when previously professed desires to pursue a more ‘normal’ policing role...could be tested in a climate of relative social calm’ (Bryett 1997: 50). This was the view expressed in the RUC’s Fundamental Review of Policing (1996: i):

For many years the conduct of a most vicious terrorist campaign forced us to operate from fortified stations; forced our officers to travel in armoured vehicles; forced them to patrol wearing flak-jackets, bearing arms and often accompanied by military colleagues. This inevitably caused barriers between us and the people we seek to serve. We long for the day when such barriers will be totally unnecessary. The period between August 1994 and February 1996 gave but a foretaste of how things could and should be. All right-thinking people of course prefer to see police patrolling and operating in the way that this period began to make possible. No-one feels more keenly the desire to engage in normal policing than the police themselves.

Throughout the RUC, freedom from the threat of targeted violence was undoubtedly the most immediate and compelling consequence of the ceasefires. In spite of the massive levels of disquiet that the debate about the future size and composition of the police force was creating, there was a palpable sense of relief among RUC officers. One RUC officer (interview) gave a telling example of this, describing the changes he made in his personal security precautions (which he did not change, even after the first IRA ceasefire was abandoned):

One of the things I religiously did was I didn't get into my car without a ten minute search. I don't carry a gun, I have no concerns about personal safety, but my inner self wouldn't allow me to sit in that car without doing a full check. I did that religiously. A ten minute job every morning. Because I knew policemen [who] had their legs blown off, and the one thing I was going to try to avoid was ending up with no legs. But one day after that ceasefire was declared, I stopped doing it and I've never done it since. There were mornings I used to get under the car and look, search - I wore old clothes - and then I'd walk away and think ‘now you didn't concentrate on doing that properly, get back there’. And even [if it was] bucketing rain I'd force myself religiously every morning. And one day after the ceasefire, I shocked myself. I just got into the car and I've been doing that ever since. It never crosses my mind. It’s wonderful.

But even amid the pleasure that officers drew from the relatively peaceful environment in which they now policed, it was clear that the ‘normal policing’ role they were creating for themselves was anything but straightforward. Even Annesley’s description of how he saw normal policing developing remained unclear, aside from the obvious desire to see an end to violence:

I would love to see a situation that young men and women in a police canteen, maybe ten years into the next century, and somebody might turn around and say ‘When were these Troubles?’ and the others would look around and say ‘I can't remember.’ (War or Peace? UTV, 26 February 1996)

The suggestion that 15 years from when Annesley made this statement, the Troubles would no longer be remembered seems somewhat far-fetched. This was not merely a feature of Annesley’s imagination, though; several other RUC officers made similar statements, all of which offered a view of the ceasefires and of the new normality that proved difficult to situate in the political and material conditions of the time. Consider the following statements:

The summer of the IRA ceasefire, the weather was spectacular, and I think that did more to make people appreciate the value of peace than anything else. I think that just came at a great time. It was almost divine intervention, and I think people forgot about politics, and about the war. Obviously victims’ wives and families couldn't, but [for] the rest of us it was wonderful. I think peace is now so precious to us all, we want it, and I think it will come. (Superintendent)

Now we operate under [the Police and Criminal Evidence Act], there has to be reasonable suspicion for someone to be stopped and searched ... And for the public now there are no windows coming in, no ‘wains’ screaming, no bullets cracking outside. And we can now work towards providing the kind of service that people want. The people of West Belfast have seen the holy land of normality, after 25 years in the desert, and now they're half way across the river Jordan. There is a promised land of milk and honey and jobs out there, and they have seen it. (Chief inspector)

We all have to adapt. It'll be hard, I've never policed in peace, but we all have to learn to change and adapt with the times. And I hope it lasts. Tomorrow has come for us, peace is’s just brilliant. (Constable, War or Peace? UTV, 26 February 1996)

While the above quotations undoubtedly reflected a sheer human reaction to what appeared to be the end of the conflict, they also revealed a predicament for RUC officers. Policing in Northern Ireland bore all the hallmarks of the violent conflict there; normal policing, in the sense of everyday routine, was a paramilitarized form of policing. Yet the RUC’s official discourse explicitly functioned to minimize the conflict’s significance. Much as the above quotes expressed an overt relief, they also foreshadowed a problematic arising from the changing political (and policing) circumstances. Nowhere was ‘normal policing’ situated in terms of a concrete human activity: it was from another dimension (divine intervention), another time (tomorrow) or another place (the ‘promised land’); it was anywhere but the here and now. In that sense, peace generated a crisis for the RUC, raising the prospect of massive changes to the force while also posing a more basic question over its role in the mode of policing that would develop in Northern Ireland. Given the longevity of the RUC’s role in countering paramilitary violence, its status as a key marker in entire communities’ relationships with the state, and its difficult if not hostile relationship with a significant proportion of the population, what visions of normality would be conceived, articulated and mobilized to secure a role for itself in the future and inscribe itself within particular configurations of Northern Ireland’s history?

The remainder of this chapter discusses three particular visions of normality evident in the RUC’s depictions of its role and relationship with the community. These refer to: first, a golden age prior to the outbreak of conflict; second, Northern Ireland’s inherently law-abiding character; and third, the application of a managerialist framework to policing in Northern Ireland, envisaging the police as professional providers of a neutral service delivered through partnerships forged with the community. While these depictions of normal policing were articulated throughout the conflict in various ways, they gained a heightened prominence in the post-ceasefire period.


Policing past perfect: normality as policing regained

Constructions of pre-Troubles policing featured heavily in official debates on policing following the 1994 ceasefires. Many commentators stated that the solution to the policing question lay in the natural equilibrium that would develop once the pressures of the security situation were lifted. The PANI chairperson suggested that the ceasefires provided an opportunity ‘once again to rekindle the vision of the new policing order first outlined by Lord Hunt in his 1969 report on policing here, but so violently smothered at birth by the onset of terrorism’ (PANI Annual Report for 1994/95: 8). For most RUC officers, though, the vision of normality most often articulated was not the set of reforms proposed by Hunt. Instead normality comprised the policing practices that actually preceded the Hunt Report, and which Hunt viewed in such great need of reform. In these instances, normality was nothing other than a return to the golden age of the pre-Troubles era. As one officer put it: ‘Now we're released from security arrangements we can try returning to the situation prior to ‘68, ‘69, and get closely involved with the community, get involved, provide a service’ (RUC chief inspector). In a similar vein, the chairperson of PANI’s community relations committee highlighted the opportunity that the ceasefires presented ‘to re-establish the intimate levels of community policing which once flourished throughout Northern Ireland’ (PANI 1994/95 Annual Report: 15).

One RUC superintendent (interview) offered a clear comparison of the normal policing that existed pre-1968. This was ‘good’ and ‘normal’ policing, administered and delivered from a bicycle, and illustrative of the non-contentiousness of pre-Troubles policing:

When I joined, the experience was very good. Things were normal in ‘65, in actual fact in ‘66, ‘67, we weren't even carrying guns in those days ... I was posted to Tyrone, I didn't even know the place I was going to, I had to have a look at the map, and they set me on a bus and away I went from Enniskillen [the RUC training depot]. And I was there two years. I must say it was very good. We cycled about, normal like, probably the way the Guards have done for years down south.

He continued by depicting the subsequent outbreak of widespread violence in the late 1960s as the death knell of this normality, and also the catalyst towards the ‘abnormal policing’ required to deal with that violence:

It was a pity, you know, a young fella coming from a normal society, [doing] normal policing in [Tyrone], to suddenly seeing all that being lost, and steadily going down the drain during the ‘70s, the terrible bombing campaigns, the amount of people being killed...

The absence of political conflict was a recurrent feature of this vision of normality. Depictions of policing were instead dominated by mundane police work, by the internal relations of the RUC rather than external relations with the community. In this context, errant cyclists were often the most pressing problems facing the police. The former Chief Constable Sir John Hermon (1997: 15) noted that his first RUC patrol - a cycle patrol - involved a ‘hot pursuit’ of a man on an unlighted bicycle. He also recounted how life within the RUC was covered by an enormous number of regulations, their impact softened only by the ‘common sense and humanity’ which characterized their implementation (p. 15). In a similar vein, one RUC constable featured in the Inside the RUC episode ‘The Middle Men’ (UTV, 19 February 1996) discussed his experiences of policing in the village of Castlederg prior to the Troubles:

I came in one night at twelve [midnight] and the sergeant asked me how many cases I had. And I told him there'd been nobody about, dead of winter, didn't get any cases that night. Sent me out again, told me I couldn't get back in until I got a case. So I wandered down the village again, not a sinner about. Came back in at one. Asked me again, sent me out again when he found the answer was nil. And thank god some fella was going home on a bicycle, and he had no light on the back of his bike, and god help me I had to book him to get in to my bed. So I came in, put the ‘no tail light’ in the book. I'm not sure what the fine was, I'm sure it wasn't much more than two shillings in those days. That’s what you had to do.

In this confessional tale the mundaneness of policing activity and the petty discipline that characterized relations between constables and their supervisors form the backdrop for a broader characterization of consensual policing arrangements in the area. As this officer went on to note: ‘It’s a troubled area now, but in those days it was very agriculturally minded. Very, very friendly town, very pro-police town.’

The Police Museum publication Arresting Memories (Sinclair and Scully 1982) offers a further example of pre-Troubles policing with a ‘delightful’ cartoon entitled ‘I remember...!‘ (plate 105). This image depicts an elderly former RUC member recounting ‘some earlier memories’ of life in the RUC to a ‘very young constable’. These are memories of: ‘short haircuts, barrack regulations, station lamps, pumping water, anti-smuggling patrols, trestle tables and hard beds, not to mention the fair day duties, the early morning "rising patrols" and the all powerful barrack cook.’ The text for the cartoon claims that ‘Many readers will be able to share his memories’; in other words, they are not the atypical experiences of one particular officer, but instead resonate with an entire generation of RUC officers and form part of the RUC’s collective memory. According to this cartoon, policing boiled down to the internal workings of the police organization, the petty discipline and harsh living conditions which doubtless were a rude awakening for a great many young recruits. No hint of political conflict appears. Even the young constable’s conception of policing is abstracted from the Northern Ireland conflict: his daydreams about ‘the next century of policing’ amount to futuristic ‘cosmocops’ flying in a space-age aircraft. The border with the Irish Republic is featured in the cartoon, but only in relation to cattle smuggling and certainly not as a contested entity. In a later photograph in the Arresting Memories collection, the border reappears (again in relation to cattle smuggling), in the guise of ‘a land boundary with a variation in food prices on either side’ (1982: 68). Throughout these characterizations, the public is largely absent: the only non-police characters in the ‘I Remember...’ cartoon are the physically imposing female ‘barrack cook’ and the smuggler, and the only hint of conflict in these stories involves the apprehension of errant cyclists. Instead, the social milieu of policing is populated with nothing more contentious than abrasive superiors and a great many regulations. Such characterizations of pre-Troubles policing offer an implicit non-sequitur: as political conflict is not mentioned, there must have been none.


Normal all along? Policing the ‘peaceful province’

Related to this notion of a golden age of policing in the pre-Troubles era is the assertion that policing in Northern Ireland was normal all along. This vision of normality was a staple element of RUC discourse throughout the conflict and also during the post-ceasefire period. It focuses attention not on the abnormalities arising from the conflict but on the ever-present normality that always existed behind the news headlines of violence and conflict. If Northern Ireland is atypical, it is through an excess of calm rather than turmoil, an approach that McEvoy, Gormally and Mika (2002: 185-6) call the ‘surprisingly low levels of crime despite the Troubles thesis’:

Whilst terrorism and its effects pervade life in Northern Ireland, it is important to emphasize that even when one counts terrorism into the statistics, the crime rate here is lower than any other police force area in England and Wales. Moreover, our detection rate compares very favourably with the mainland. (RUC, 1992a: 5)1

The overall tranquillity of the region is enhanced by the fact that, as the PANI chairman noted: ‘Community strife is limited to relatively small areas of Northern Ireland. In the main it is a beautiful country in which many people born elsewhere choose to make their homes and set up business’ (PANI 1988: 2; see also NIO 1989). Even former Chief Constable Annesley (1992: 287) was moved to observe that ‘Northern Ireland has some of the warmest people and some of the finest scenery imaginable.’

The mention of Northern Ireland’s relatively low crime and victimization rates and high detection rates extended beyond a description of statistical reality. It was actively used to attribute specific characteristics to the majority of the population. The putative ‘law-abiding’ nature of the population features prominently here. For example, the NIO referred to Northern Ireland as ‘the most law-abiding part of the United Kingdom’ (NIO 1989: 37). Former Chief Constable Hermon also described the population of Northern Ireland as ‘overwhelmingly decent, warm-hearted, essentially law-abiding people’ (quoted in PANI 1988: 2). In a noteworthy instance, these traditional values were credited with functioning as a major impediment to the widespread use of illegal drugs. According to the House of Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, in its 1997 report on drug use in Northern Ireland, the ‘strong social and family ties that exist within all communities in Northern Ireland’ had prevented illegal drug use from reaching the levels evident in other countries (RUC press release, 14 February 1997). This assertion that Northern Ireland is, contrary to media stereotypes, an essentially benign location, peopled by warm-hearted and law-abiding ‘folk’, is telling. It implicates the RUC in an organic relationship with the community (see PANI 1988: 2); moreover, it privileges social consensus to the exclusion of any hint of conflict. The ‘folk’ envisaged here are far removed from any notion of a politicized citizenry.

These various enunciations on the theme that Northern Ireland is atypical not because of its violence but because of its tranquillity, all point to such indicators as crime rates and clearance/detection rates as a measure of the pastoral calm of its social landscape. Moreover, these factors also highlight the fact that, even at the height of the conflict, the RUC was doing exactly what a normal police force would be doing: preventing and investigating crime. The police bicycle patrol that featured so prominently in the constructions of a pre-Troubles idyll continued its journey as an ideological vehicle in the assertions that the RUC engaged in normal policing all along. In one example of this, beside a photograph showing two RUC officers on bicycle patrol giving directions to another cyclist, an NIO publication highlighted how police officers were ‘walking beats in country villages, patrolling shopping areas, working with local schools and trying to instil a new sense of road safety in the population’ (NIO 1989: 37; see also Miller 1994b). Similarly, in Arresting Memories (Sinclair and Scully 1982), one picture with the caption of ‘Progress without change’ (plate 103) epitomized the continuity and seamless moral authority that bicycle patrols symbolize. This mode of patrol allows police officers the opportunity to engage in leisurely conversation with members of the community, but also creates the opportunity, as the photo suggests, for the officer to be engaged by members of the public in conversation. In this untroubled social landscape, the officer on cycle patrol is:

being engaged in conversation by a couple of young cyclists. The common denominator is the bicycle and no doubt the conversation centres on the problems of modern day cyclists. Police in some areas have recently rediscovered the bicycle as a mode of transport and enjoy the opportunity of more leisurely patrols with time to converse with passers by. The public for their part feel that they have rediscovered the policeman and both are happy in this new relationship.

Other examples of this view offer a more qualified view of police normality during the conflict. These suggest that the true measure of RUC officers was evident in the fact that although the situation around them was dangerous and difficult, the ‘abnormal’ policing that this forced upon them never supplanted the authentic crime-prevention policing that officers performed. The theme that critics of the RUC focused on security-related policing, while failing to acknowledge the ‘normal’ policing carried out by the RUC, is a further thread to this broad argument. Some examples of this trend entirely eclipsed the fact that there was a conflict to begin with. For instance, the PFNI’s banner for its 1997 conference read ‘75 years of Putting People First’. From this perspective, one of the true measures of RUC professionalism was that even at the height of the Troubles, with all of the difficulties that entailed, officers continued to perform normal policing, enabling them to claim that by doing so they remained a ‘normal’ police force. As Ronnie Flanagan noted during a radio interview:

Do you think you'll ever come to the point where you will be able to be the Dixon of Dock Green so to speak?
In many areas and in many circumstances we are the Dixon of Dock Green. It’s interesting you know that people try and portray [a need for] massive change, but if you look at Woodbourne and Andersonstown Sub-Division [in West Belfast] there were 20,000 contacts between the community there and their local police last year. Now that was in an era when violence was at its height. So I think that represents a tremendous dialogue between the police and the community. So this isn't something that has suddenly come about; it’s something of course that we can now really foster and build upon. But we've always had the closest contact with the community right across the Province, and that’s something we want to see continually develop. (RTE interview, 9 March 1995: 18-19)2

Similarly, after describing the increasing violence during the early 1970s, one RUC superintendent (interview) complained at the lack of acknowledgement given to the RUC’s service role, stressing that this role was never wholly supplanted by the security situation:

I suppose as time went on you just got hardened up to it, and you did your best to deliver the service. I think that’s the big thing that galls me sometimes when we're criticized, that all the RUC are this, this or this. I think that the RUC over 25 years kept a reasonable degree of normality and delivered a policing service in extreme circumstances that probably very few police forces throughout the world has ever had to do. I think this is the positive side, that we did still deliver a policing service, we still dealt with traffic accidents, investigated burglaries, delivered the whole policing service to the backdrop of terrorism and being killed in doing that. As I said, we didn't always get it right, we made mistakes along the way. But I like to think that my career was one of commitment and service to the people of Northern Ireland, regardless of who or what they were.

This vision of normality amounted to a celebration of the ‘unsung’ activities of the RUC. It stressed that the RUC’s focus remained on being a normal police force in a normal community doing normal policing, and never wavered from that by succumbing to the pressures of the conflict. The consequence of this approach was to minimise the significance of the conflict and the ‘distortions’ it generated for the RUC. Clearly, if the RUC was normal all along, there could be little need to reform it.


Policing in partnership: normal policing as managerialism

The conceptions of normal policing described in the previous two sections have, whether implicitly or explicitly, a historical dimension to them. They flesh out a model of policing that has at its core a very traditional conception of community. They hark back to a mythical past and invite the idealized police-community relations contained therein to be accepted as the model for - and the reality of - the present day. In the aftermath of the ceasefires, however, a more prospective vision of policing was articulated. Drawing heavily on the notion of policing as ‘service provision’, this model of normal policing offered the language and concepts of managerialism as the primary means of mediating public expectations of the police.

The major thrust of managerialism within the RUC emerged with the publication of the RUC’s Professional Policing Ethics in 1988, the RUC’s Strategic Statements during the 1990s, the RUC’s Statement of Purpose and Values in 1992, and the RUC Charter in 1993. Hermon (1997) also charts how his tenure as Chief Constable was increasingly affected by the imposition of financial constraints on the RUC as central government sought to curb public expenditure. The ceasefires greatly raised the profile of this approach. The RUC’s Fundamental Review of Policing was the culmination of a major examination of how a permanent peace in Northern Ireland would affect the role, structure and style of policing. The vision of policing offered in that document is entirely consistent with the principles and ethos of managerialism: ‘It concentrated on first principles of policing, recognizing that what really matters is the quality of the service that is delivered and how that matches community needs and expectations’ (1996: i). In another example, in October 1995, a Service Quality Development Branch was set up for the purpose of ‘taking a structured approach to providing a better service’ (RUC Annual Report for 1995: 73):

The RUC is fully conscious of the need to satisfy ever changing public and government demands for a policing service which is effective and provides real value for money. This means continually improving both what we do and how we do it. Through the Service Quality Development Branch we are developing a strategy for continuous improvement, based upon the provision of proven business tools and techniques, to support individuals and teams striving to deliver ever more efficient and effective services. Our ultimate aim is to foster a culture dedicated to the pursuit of policing excellence. (RUC Annual Report for 1996: 59)

Managerialism was not confined to statements from RUC headquarters or to its official publications; it was also evident in the comments of operational policing commanders. In the context of discussing how policing might change in the event of a permanent peace, one officer noted that:

In four or five years I would think the RUC will be a totally different organization. We'll be a policing service, the war machine will have been dismantled. The priority will be to meet local people, all over the place, find out what they want. And that’s actually what’s happening at the minute. (RUC superintendent)

Another officer emphasized that the ethos of service provision would increasingly come to the fore as peace became more solid. Moreover, he identified the public credit that the RUC would get for this as a major bulwark to the peace process, suggesting that a high-quality policing service would undermine the support the IRA received:

[We can] get closely involved with the community, get involved, provide a service. Not just law enforcement, but getting involved with community service. We can get more involved in supporting the victim. I think maybe we'll surprise people with the quality of service we can provide. I think it will be harder for the IRA to go back to a conflict situation when people have seen the kind of service we can deliver. (RUC chief inspector)


From security to service delivery: normal policing in action

This shift to normal policing as manifested in managerialism and service delivery formulae was exemplified by the RUC’s emphasis on ‘policing in partnership’ in the post-ceasefire period. While on the one hand this related to new and improved relationships between the RUC and sections of the community, it also referred to the RUC working hand in hand with the community to address issues of common concern. By focusing on ‘normal’ problems, the RUC emphasized what would be seen as meaningful yet non-contentious activities, particularly in relation to crime prevention. Crime prevention initiatives also received greater amounts of media attention than in the past. Under the title of ‘Crimecall’, a crime appeals programme was relaunched on UTV, while a ‘Crimestoppers’ column in the Sunday Life newspaper was supplemented by a ‘Crimebeat’ column in the News Letter newspaper (RUC Annual Report for 1995: 73). The Police Federation also demanded that attention be focused on ordinary crime. Even in the first Police Beat editorial following the IRA ceasefire of August 1994, there was a focus on the need for ‘ordinary’ policing. Of its three paragraphs, one called for the ceasefire to be made permanent, one focused on the memory of RUC officers and others who died in ‘the past barbarous twenty-five years’, and one described the ‘policing job to be done throughout Northern Ireland. Rackets, fraud and ordinary crime have still to be tackled; the road traffic rate has leapt during the course of this year and must be a priority for reduction’ (Police Beat, September 1994: 4).

Traffic policing would indeed be a major focus for the RUC as it set about reconstructing itself as a normal police force engaged in partnership with the community and tackling normal and non-contentious crime. Placing a heavy emphasis on the huge number of road deaths in Northern Ireland was, ironically, a familiar aspect of official attempts to assert normality. No Chief Constable’s Annual Report was complete without mention of the ‘carnage’ on the roads, or the fact that road deaths far outnumbered those arising from the conflict. It is clear, however, that while this information serves on the one hand to maximize the severity of road deaths, it also functions to minimize the severity of the conflict.3 Thus, after reassuring the reader that the crime rate in Northern Ireland was significantly lower than in many other jurisdictions, one NIO publication reassured the reader still further: ‘More people have died in road traffic accidents than in the Troubles. Statistically, an Ulster citizen is twice as likely to be killed on the roads as he is at the hands of the terrorist’ (1989: 36).

After the ceasefires, the significance of traffic policing increased further, and became a central measure of normality. In a Police Beat editorial entitled ‘Resuming Normal Service’ that appeared shortly after the declaration of the loyalist ceasefire, the PFNI called for police attention to swing towards the problem of road traffic deaths: ‘There are still a number of major battles to be fought and won, none more pressing than the almost daily carnage on our roads’ (Police Beat, November / December 1994: 7). The RUC’s Roadsafe campaign, launched in March 1995, was ‘the biggest road safety campaign to be mounted by the force, aimed at reducing the number of deaths and injuries on the roads’ (RUC Annual Report for 1995: 73). It reflected force rhetoric that road traffic should be an immediate source of police energies, and was facilitated b3 the release of personnel from security-related duties (p. 45). As with other normal policing ventures, the RUC ‘availed of every opportunity to publicize the commitment to road safety’ (RUC Annual Report for 1996: 61). For one RUC chief inspector, this translated to sound policing as evidenced by the outcome:

One of the things we've been doing is working on traffic matters. People think we're hammering the public with the numbers of people in court. But people are driving more slowly now, and the fact of the matter is that more people have been killed by cars than in the conflict. (Interview)

While road traffic matters were a prime focus for the RUC’s newly released resources, the issue of drugs quickly emerged as an even more prominent dimension of normal policing (Hollywood 1997). At the start of the 1990s, the Chief Constable stated that: ‘there is not a serious drugs problem in Northern Ireland’ (RUC Annual Report for 1990: 10). In the immediate aftermath of the ceasefire, however, illegal drugs came to epitomize the RUC’s engagement in normal policing activities. Through out the 1990s there was a steady and often dramatic increase in the amount of drugs seized and the number of drug-related arrests, but this was mostly in relation to ‘soft’ or recreational drugs. Concerning heroin and cocaine, year after year the Chief Constable noted that ‘the abuse of "hard" drugs is not widespread’ (RUC Annual Report for 1991: 35). Even after the ceasefires, the Chief Constable observed that: ‘Seizures of opiates and cocaine are down on previous years and are minuscule in comparison to the rest of the United Kingdom’ (RUC Annual Report for 1995: 32).

As the peace process developed the RUC substantially increased its involvement in the policing of the illegal drugs market, and its actions ‘against the growing drugs menace’ (RUC Annual Report for 1995:33-4) assumed far greater prominence. Some of this rhetoric verged on the hysterical:

This community faces an evil just as deadly and insidious as terrorism. The menace of drugs mirrors terrorism. It grows from small beginnings, thrives on initial official complacency and in the end we are all targets. Drugs, like terrorists, do not discriminate in their victims...the fear is now of drugs corrupting people’s lives and ultimately destroying families just as surely as contamination by terrorism. (Les Rodgers, speech to the 1996 PFNI Annual Conference)

The RUC’s rhetorical commitment to countering illegal drug use was matched by significant increases in the size and profile of the Drugs Squad. The chief inspector in charge of the unit was promoted to superintendent, the Drugs Squad was increased from 38 to 52 officers (a recommendation already made by HMIC (1995: 30)), the number of regional offices expanded threefold and a drugs liaison officer was appointed in every sub-divisional area throughout Northern Ireland, effectively adding over 100 further officers to the policing of illegal drugs. This commitment to tackling drugs was also given organizational backing through the RUC’s Strategy Statements. While the RUC’s Strategic Statement for 1992-1995 noted that ‘drug abuse is not a major problem, with no evidence of the widespread use of highly addictive drugs’ (RUC 1992a: 5), the Strategic Statement for 1997-2000 identified drugs as ‘an important priority’ (RUC 1997: 13).

In terms of the RUC’s self-portrayal as a service - rather than security-oriented organization, the emphasis attached to road traffic safety and illegal drugs met with a very positive response, certainly at an organizational level. In 1996, both units became ‘the first police departments of their kind in the UK to be awarded the Charter Mark for outstanding service to the public’ (RUC press release, 2 December 1996). As the Chief Constable noted: ‘Such recognition in our special circumstances is, I feel, particularly meritorious’ (RUC Annual Report for 1996: 8). Moreover, the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, in its report on illicit drug use in Northern Ireland, reported that Northern Ireland was ‘a success story in preventing drug abuse from reaching the same proportions as elsewhere’ (RUC Press Release, 2 December 1996). Viewed in this light, the RUC’s policing of illegal drugs would be seen as one major step towards demonstrating the effectiveness of the new productive relationships that could be forged between the police and the public as normal policing developed in Northern Ireland.



The relaxed security situation that followed the ceasefires served as a window of opportunity for the RUC to shift from a security-oriented mode of policing to a more civic and service-oriented one. Claiming that the distortions the conflict had forced upon their role were now removed, RUC officers at last seemed to have an opportunity to perform the normal policing that for so long they had envied in other jurisdictions and expressed a desire to perform in their own. However, the visions of normality articulated here shared in common a deeply depoliticized expression of social relations. This was particularly evident in the greater emphasis placed on managerialism as the force hoped to shrug off the effects of the conflict and establish itself firmly in the mode of service deliverer, operating in partnership with the community and offering technical solutions to meet the needs of customers. However, this view runs counter to the ways in which policing was implicated in the overt politicization of the social landscape in Northern Ireland. Not only were the identities of communities established and reinforced through the relationship they had with the police, but so too at a rhetorical level the police implicitly politicized the public sphere in Northern Ireland by establishing itself as an impartial umpire ‘holding the ring’ (Mulcahy and Ellison 2001) between two irredeemably politicized antagonists, nationalists and unionists. Its greater professionalism was always juxtaposed against the embedded political character of the ‘immature communities’ it policed (Police Beat, July 2004).

The three visions of normality discussed here dominated post-ceasefire RUC rhetoric. Just as a major debate on police reform was unfolding across Northern Ireland, these models of policing and police - community relations offered the RUC a means of refuting the need for reform by denying the existence of any conflict over policing to begin with, certainly none that would not be resolved once the distorting influence of paramilitary violence was removed. The experience of policing in many communities, however, diverged sharply from the RUC’s own recollections of past idylls, or of a mode of normal policing that persisted throughout the conflict. In the next chapter, I examine how communities which traditionally had a conflictual relationship with the force would articulate their own memories of policing and seek to realize their persistent demands for reform.



1. The RUC’s clearance rate for recorded crimes peaked in 1988 at 45.1 per cent, before dropping in the following years to the mid 30s. Throughout the conflict, its clearance rates usually were higher than rates in Britain, although they dropped significantly following the restructuring associated with the 1999 Patten Report (see Chapter 9).

2. There was probably considerable variation in police - public contact from station to station, and much of a station’s day-to-day business may have been conducted by telephone rather than through face-to-face visits. Nevertheless, in some cases the number of public visitors to police premises was extremely low. For instance, the local police commander for Rosemount PSNI station in Derry noted that ‘12 people had visited the station between October 2003 and October 2004’ (Irish Times, 2 December 2004).

3. This strategy of ‘favourable comparison’ is used across a range of contexts to downplay the significance of particular events. One Fox News commentator provided the following (inaccurate) analysis in 2003 in relation to the war Iraq: ‘Two hundred and seventy-seven U.S. soldiers have now died in Iraq, which means that, statistically speaking, U.S. soldiers have less of a chance of dying from all causes in Iraq than citizens have of being murdered in California...’ (,2933,95850,00.html).


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

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :