Political Policing for the Shared Future


Was it really the elections, stupid? That is how Martin McGuinness was putting it the other day, paraphrasing Bill Clinton’s election campaign slogan, whilst Gerry Adams remained under arrest and interrogation at the PSNI station.

McGuinness said, moreover, that there was a ‘cabal’ in the PSNI, and spoke of a ‘dark side’ in policing in Northern Ireland, an term also used by Gerry Adams in last night’s press conference. This kind of language and imagery seems calculated to create tension, to open up a distance between the forces of democratic accountability on the one hand, and shady dealings on the other. Between the forces of light, and the forces of darkness.

Does all this have any basis in fact? It’s hard to say for definite that those who organised Adams’s arrest had in mind the forthcoming elections. It’s hard to say for definite that they were driven by antipathy towards Sinn Féin’s political project in general and the figure of Gerry Adams in particular.

Another distinction drawn by Sinn Féin in recent days was an implicit one: between political policing -to which Gerry Adams was supposedly subjected-, and policing that is not political. What they probably meant by ‘political policing’ was policing with the deliberate intention of shaping or frustrating formal electoral contests. However, if politics goes beyond formal electoral contests, then so too does political policing.

In fact, all policing is political. The very existence of the PSNI serves to shape a particular political reality: that is why it replaced the RUC, and that is why its Land Rovers are painted white instead of murky green, and that is why it refers to ‘Northern Ireland’ and not ‘Ulster’; ‘Service’, with its connotations of being subject to the public, not ‘Constabulary’, with its suggestions of pulling people into line. And not ‘Royal’.

The broader social reality, however, doesn’t fall into line with changes in policing. The outward neutrality of the police force -sorry, service– cannot hide the fact that on the whole, the general interest that it appears to serve is in fact a set of particular interests: primarily, those with property against those of no property, but also, the interests of those who want to keep Northern Ireland as a political entity, against those who want to make it go away.

What is it that Sinn Féin wants to do with Northern Ireland, again? The support the party declares for the PSNI antagonises both republicans who are completely opposed to any form of British rule in Ireland, but also, those who see the PSNI as that most reliable of instruments: a constabulary. If the PSNI is not there to preserve Northern Ireland against those working to make it disappear, this line of thinking might go, what on earth is it for?

The image of the ‘cabal’ calls to mind a midnight rendezvous down at the graveyard among senior police figures and maybe others. Covenants written in blood, secret handshakes, cigars and whiskey. The reality may prove more mundane, however: a tension between those in the PSNI who see Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin as opposed to Northern Ireland, as the living embodiment of violent criminal opposition to it, and who are therefore to be subjected to the rigours of the rule of law, and, on the other hand, those who see them as crucial to its future, and therefore a condition of possibility for the rule of law. It doesn’t look like a tension likely to be resolved any time soon.

And the thing is, this is a tension that most likely extends throughout the rest of the security apparatus of the British State that is concerned with Northern Ireland. If it is true that states have no permanent allies, only permanent interests, it is also true that states are not as permanent as they look. Their reality is a lot more protean than the imposing facades and habits and customs would have you believe. The prospect of Scottish independence has to weigh heavily on the brains of those concerned with protecting what MI5 calls the Anglo-Saxon form of capitalism. The unravelling of Britain’s welfare state, privatisation, continued imperial escapades abroad, the scapegoating of Muslims, the political rise of UKIP: all these things weigh in on administrative questions of what to do in Northern Ireland and what to do with it.

There are other considerations too, from such a point of view: if the Irish government has said little to nothing about abuses in Northern Ireland prisons; if it has refused to press the UK government on the matter of dozens of murders of its citizens by the British State, but has rather chosen to send its representatives in horse-drawn carriages to meet the Queen, and has even invited the royals to the 1916 commemoration, well, doesn’t that send out the message that the Crown has been more or less right all along, and that the enemies of the Irish government are our allies too, and that we are at our best when we do as we see fit, not when we pay heed to terrorists?

Meanwhile, the emerging social and political reality of Northern Ireland is one of deprivation and political impotence of working class communities as a consequence of austerity; a renewed arrogance of elites involved in finance and property speculation; jingoism and militarism derived from Iraq, Afghanistan and the ITN nightly news, and the decay of loyalism into utter political incoherence and violent racist atavism.

The notion of a ‘shared future’ that is supposed to form the basis of an enduring political settlement for Northern Ireland is, in this light, nothing more than nice talk. Devoid of any political substance, it circulates in complete isolation from the fact of neoliberal rule, which has proven perfectly compatible with political institutions that recast matters of class conflict in sectarian terms. Who is supposed to share what with whom? Dominant political discourse in Northern Ireland has it that the only thing to be shared in the future is simply something called ‘the future’. In real terms this means everything for some people, and nothing for anyone else. That is a reality that requires constant political policing.


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