December 10, 2022

Lessons from 25 Years of Policing Progress in Northern Ireland


PERF members,

I have always been fascinated by how the police manage conflict, and there is no better example than Northern Ireland. Nearly 25 years ago, the Good Friday Agreement ended “the Troubles”— the period starting in the late 1960s in which the police were in the middle of a conflict that took the lives of over 300 police officers and thousands of civilians on both sides. For Americans, Northern Ireland’s reforms to the justice system since then provide invaluable lessons about policing in divided communities, diversifying the police force, building legitimacy in communities, and changing culture. 

This week, PERF and the Northern Ireland Bureau co-hosted a discussion on the evolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. We were fortunate to be joined in Washington, D.C. by officials from the Northern Ireland Department of Justice, the Northern Ireland Prison Service, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI).

First, a bit of history. In 1998, Northern Irish political parties and the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland signed the Good Friday Agreement. It established the Independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, also known as the Patten Commission, chaired by Lord Patten of Barnes. The commission was charged with conducting a review of Northern Ireland’s police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), and recommending changes to create a new force that is “professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial, free from partisan political control; accountable, both under the law for its actions and to the community it serves; representative of the society it polices, and operates within a coherent and cooperative criminal justice system, which conforms with human rights norms.”

A man prepares to strike a police officer in a civil rights riot in Waterloo Place in 1969. Approximately 180 people were injured during this day’s conflict. Source: UPI

The commission’s 1999 report—A New Beginning: Policing in Northern Ireland—made 175 recommendations, including that the RUC change its name to the PSNI, implement a human rights-based approach to policing, and hire equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics, because Catholic officers were seriously underrepresented in the RUC.

Then, in 2010, the Hillsborough Agreement between British and Northern Irish leaders gave the Northern Ireland executive control of the justice system, which had previously been governed by the government of the United Kingdom. As Mark Goodfellow, Director of Safer Communities for the Northern Ireland Department of Justice, explained, the government “inherited some intractable problems. We inherited a prison system that was absolutely ripe for reform, a legal aid system that was hugely resource-intensive, and a criminal justice system with which citizens had completely disengaged.”

Northern Ireland Department of Justice Director of Safer Communities Mark Goodfellow

Since then, the police service and the entire justice system have made tremendous progress. In a survey published earlier this year, 62% of respondents said their local police do an excellent or good job, and 75% said they had confidence in their local police. Two-thirds of respondents said they were very or fairly confident in the criminal justice system, and 73% said the criminal justice system was fair.

That has dramatically changed the PSNI’s relationship with the community. “I remember working in the Northern Ireland office on the security side less than 20 years ago,” Director Goodfellow said. “At that time, any officers coming out of Crossmaglen police station could not have stepped outside that base without heavily armed soldiers around him or her. Fast forward to where we are now today, and we can log onto Facebook and work out that we can get coffee with a cop at this location, at this time, with the names of those officers.”

A PSNI officer greets attendees at the Foyle Maritime Festival. Source: on Instagram

Bob Peirce, a longtime British diplomat (and very good friend) who served as secretary of the Patten Commission, pointed to the strong parallels between the U.S. today and Northern Ireland’s experience two decades ago. “The policing crisis in the United States right now has three key elements, in my view,” Peirce said. “One is a collapse of community trust. The second element is the problem of recruiting and retaining officers. And that contributes to the third element of the crisis, which is rising crime.”

Along with Kathleen O’Toole, Bob Peirce co-authored the recent book Seven Ways to Fix Policing NOW: Building Trust, Authentic Partnerships, and Safe Communities, which provides a practical guide to policing reform in the U.S.

“When I went to Northern Ireland to do the Patten Commission 24 years ago, I felt that Northern Ireland was a bit of an outlier in civilized society at that time,” Peirce continued. “It was very divided. Politics were tribal. A very significant community – almost half the population – either distrusted the police totally or weren’t too happy with police. Policing was a politicized issue. Police talked about being a political football. Politicians on one side were lambasting them. Politicians on the other side, who claimed to be supportive of the police, were often saying things that were extremely unhelpful. Police officers were being targeted for assassination. And the police department did not reflect the population, not just in terms of the Protestant/Catholic and Unionist/Nationalist divide in society, but also with very, very few women. All of that seemed out of line with what was going on in the rest of the world. You can go down that list now and look at the United States and check off pretty much every one of those things.”

The day’s most personal remarks came from PSNI Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, who reflected on the changes in policing and in his mindset as a police officer over his nearly 30 years of service. I’ll excerpt his speech at length:

“I am the son of a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer. He was a Catholic man from Derry, or Londonderry. My grandparents were all from southern Ireland. He joined the police in 1963 as a Catholic, and that split the family right down the middle, because even in 1963, Catholics didn’t join the police. I’m also the husband of an RUC officer. My wife was in the RUC. My family history of policing in Northern Ireland goes back to pre-Second World War. We have been in continuous service in policing since then.

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton

“In 1999, I would have never have openly declared, either internally to the police or externally, that I’m a member of the Roman Catholic community. Now I do very comfortably. Back then, I was one of 8% of Roman Catholics on the police service. Now 32% of the service are Catholic. These numbers have changed because Patten mandated 50/50 recruitment, a very controversial and often divisive recruitment process in Northern Ireland. But agree with it or disagree with it, it’s certainly changed the demographics of our service.

“It needs to be said by me, a dyed-in-the-wool police officer for a long time, that the reform of policing in Northern Ireland was necessary. At the time, I didn’t believe that. I don’t think I understood why policing needed to evolve, why it needed to change, why it needed to progress, and why it needed to collaborate with communities in a manner that, for many reasons, wasn’t possible to that point. For me, policing was a noble calling, a position of righteousness, a clear choice between good and evil. And I still believe that those are clear choices for those of us who are cops. For me there were no grey areas, just the lawful and the law breakers. From my naïve point of view, I made no attempt to understand why others might see it differently. Why they might not respect the police force the way that I did. How their life experiences might have shaped their worldview.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a cop. Crime is crime. Murder’s murder. And I’ll stand up to people who try to harm others. That’ll never change. But I had never really considered that the legitimacy of the police might be the deciding factor in whether or not some people choose to obey the law or break the law. I had never considered the community’s experiences of identity, social exclusion, fairness, and equality could be an influencing factor in their cooperation with the government. It never really crossed my mind that policing had a role to play in the public overcoming those barriers. As far as I was concerned, it was your choice to cooperate with the police, or not. We were right, and we had the law on our side. Now, after 28 years of policing, I can say one thing I’ve learned. Just because it’s lawful doesn’t mean it’s right.”

Brendan Giffen, Head of Strategy, Governance, and Communications, Northern Ireland Prison Service; Bob Peirce, co-author, Seven Ways to Fix Policing Now; Deputy Chief Constable Mark Hamilton, Police Service of Northern Ireland; Chuck Wexler; Andrew Elliott, Director, Northern Ireland Bureau; and Mark Goodfellow, Director of Safer Communities, Northern Ireland Department of Justice

Northern Ireland’s situation is unique, but it contains lessons that apply to the challenges that police and the criminal justice system in the U.S. face today. One of those lessons is, as Mark put it, “individual human rights are as important as the law we are charged with enforcing.” Another is the amount of progress that’s possible when people of good will sit down together to find common ground.

I am grateful for my longtime friends in Northern Ireland, for whom I have the utmost respect and affection. And I’m grateful to all our panelists for taking the time to share their experiences, and to Director Andrew Elliott and Deputy Director Eamonn McConville from the Northern Ireland Bureau for organizing this event.