The Crowned Harp: Policing in Northern Ireland, Graham Ellison and Jim Smyth (Pluto Press, pb £14.99, hb £45) ISBN 0745313930, 0745313981

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 4 (Winter 2000), Northern Ireland 1920 - present, Reviews, Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 8

My most vivid memory of Northern Ireland remains the police stations in West Belfast. I was familiar from newspaper and television coverage with the murals and graffiti splashed walls that describe the depths of the loyalties and hatreds that have plagued that region. But it was the sight of police officers peering through wire-mesh and bullet proof glass from behind the walls of armed fortresses in the middle of Catholic neighbourhoods that symbolise what the authors of The Crowned Harp argue is the failure of policing in Northern Ireland. Graham Ellison, a lecturer in criminology at Keele University, and Jim Smyth, a sociologist at Queen’s University, Belfast, provide an informative, interesting, and blunt description and analysis of law enforcement in Northern Ireland since 1922. Their information comes from an eclectic selection of sources: official documents, newspaper accounts, public opinion surveys, interviews with officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, members of various security forces, and members of both loyalist and republican organisations.

Those high walls of concrete and steel, multiple fences, adorned with razor wire and electronic surveillance cameras, and the suspicious eyes within describe an institution under siege, an institution without the moral authority and legitimacy required, the authors claim, to function in a democratic society. For it is the police officers inside who are in a very real sense imprisoned, fearful, and limited in every respect by the hostility and contempt toward them that permeate the neighbourhoods of West Belfast. If Ellison and Smyth are correct, the Royal Ulster Constabulary is now probably as concerned with protecting itself both physically and politically as it is in protecting the lives and property of ordinary citizens. The extraordinary security required at those police stations, and the signs I saw painted on the walls of neighbourhoods nearby equating the RUC with the Nazi SS, and warning its officers to ‘Stay out’, probably reveal more about Catholic feelings than any of the opinion surveys challenged by the authors in a concluding chapter.
This is so, the authors claim, because the RUC has forfeited whatever trust it should have acquired among Catholics in a long and corrosive history of outrageously discriminatory law enforcement. With careful documentation, the authors demonstrate an ancient truism: without equity in the formulation and enforcement of law, there can be no community. At the beginning of a new millennium, conditions in Northern Ireland provide a vivid example.
Ireland has always been divided along class, religious, and ethnic lines that are still evident in the ongoing and seemingly intractable conflict in the North. Ellison and Smyth describe how since at least the nineteenth century law enforcement has reinforced these antagonisms by favouring one group over the other. Social control in the form of ‘policing’ these divisions was a central function of law enforcement in the North. Prior to 1969 the political function of the RUC was to promote and protect Protestant economic domination at the expense of Catholics. Such policies and practices, following long standing custom, included an outright denial of rights accompanied with an unsubtle suppression of Catholic identity. The result, as the fortifications at those police stations reveal, has been a costly and tragic failure.
The authors describe how class and sectarian conflict became militarised after 1969 as the role of the British army increased dramatically in its campaign against an IRA now intent on violent overthrow of British rule. This focus on counter-insurgency meant the RUC and its allies in the Ulster Defence Regiment became locked not only in a struggle with the IRA, but the entire Catholic population. To nationalists, the authors explain, ‘the RUC was simply the agent of British policy and a proxy for continued Unionist domination’. Incarceration without trial, or convictions often based solely on the testimony of a ‘supergrass’ informant and non-jury courts, were the means used to deal with the very potent reality of IRA resistance. But such policies only served to solidify Catholic opposition even among those who opposed IRA terrorism. These chapters provide some of the most interesting reading as the authors draw upon persuasive evidence of collusion between the British military, the RUC, and Protestant terrorist groups. Compelling circumstantial evidence exists that ‘elements within the RUC were willing to encourage loyalist paramilitaries to take action against people they regarded as dangerous’. A striking example of the enduring nature of such activities is evident in the assassinations of solicitors Pat Finucane, gunned down in front of family members in his home in 1989, and Rosemary Nelson, blown apart by a car bomb in front of her daughter’s school, ten years later. Finucane and Nelson were considered dangerous simply because they represented republican clients. ‘What is well documented in both these cases’, the authors insist, ‘is that members of the RUC issued death threats to both these lawyers via clients who were in custody and, in the case of Pat Finucane, there is mounting evidence that UDA [Ulster Defence Association] killers operated with information supplied by the RUC’. Troubling evidence of possible collusion also exists in the Nelson case. When faced with such strong accusations supported by solid incriminating evidence, the RUC attributed such collusion to ‘rogue’ policemen, acting without the knowledge or authority of their superiors, a proposition the authors reject.
As an American and a student of the tragic, but long sanitised, history of race relations in the United States, I am struck by some similarities in the problems that afflict both countries. Like Catholics in Northern Ireland, black Americans have endured a long and searing history of state sanctioned injustice that has left many still distrustful of policing and the judicial system. For in both countries it is not only that civil and political rights were denied or diminished as a matter of custom and policy, it is also true that, like Northern Ireland, crimes against the minority population were not usually punishable in courts of law. After nearly four centuries on American soil, it has only been since roughly 1965 that blacks have experienced anything resembling the constitutional rights that white Americans have enjoyed since their own liberation from British rule in the 1770s. Anyone who challenged the state imposed racial status quo of rigid segregation and economic exploitation that followed the abolition of slavery faced grave risks. Just one hundred years ago, for example, a lynching epidemic was raging that eventually claimed more than 4,000 black lives from the end of the Civil War in 1865 through to the 1940s. Despite the fact that the these ghastly, ritualistic murders were commonly carried out in public venues, and the perpetrators were often known to the authorities, fewer than one per cent of them were ever arrested and convicted. Collusion between these ‘death squads’ and law enforcement was as well-documented as the evidence of comparable violence presented in this book.
In their concluding chapter, Ellison and Smyth emphasise that without implementation of the significant reforms recommended by the Patten Commission, the RUC  is unlikely to undo the damage of the past. What must be overcome is a reservoir of shared memory among Catholics of past injustice that determines not only what the RUC symbolises to them, but also its legitimacy and moral authority in exercising, as police must, a monopoly of force. In the minds of most Catholics, the authors suggest, the ‘crowned harp’ is the appropriate symbol and, one could add, the appropriate metaphor for an Irish organisation that has worked hand-in-glove with the British to deny Catholic rights. ‘At the symbolic and cultural level’, the authors write, ‘policing in Northern Ireland has reflected the sensibilities of one ethno-religious bloc to the virtual exclusion of the other’. As in the case of blacks in the United States, most Catholics in Northern Ireland have always viewed the law and its enforcers as instruments and symbols of oppression rather than protection.
Recently, in the state of South Carolina controversy developed between whites and blacks as to whether it was appropriate to continue to fly the Confederate flag over the capital building. That flag, which to Southern whites still symbolises a cherished way of life and a generation of young men who gave their lives in an unsuccessful war to preserve it, has a very different meaning to the descendants of slaves. ‘That symbol of your proud past’, one black explained to a white adversary, ‘is to us the symbol of our oppression.’
If the authors of this book are correct, the same could be said about the symbolism conveyed by the ‘crowned harp’. Whatever else that might be done to secure peace in Northern Ireland, surely nothing can be more important than repairing that essential bond between state and citizen that will remain broken so long as equal treatment and justice are not anticipated by all.

James W. Clarke


Copyright © 2024 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568