Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Logic of a Justified Hope: The Dialectic of Police Reform in Northern Ireland

Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Logic of a Justified Hope: The Dialectic of Police Reform in Northern Ireland

Article excerpt


This article examines proposals for the reform of the relationship between internal security and state-society relations in Northern Ireland and finds a divergence from the usual liberal package of police reforms. These proposals embraced the political nature of security provision and aimed to create authentically democratic institutions endowed with sufficient power to contest the state's control over the monopoly of force. Through a Habermassian lens, the research analyses the emancipatory potential of these proposals, and examines the reasons why they were rejected in favour of a state-centric, liberal model that did not deliver the structural transformation of police--society relations sought by the petiole of Northern Ireland.


This article posits a dialectic between liberal and democratic models of policing, and highlights the differences between the two models by examining attempts made in Northern Ireland to implement a more democratic model. Based on popular sovereignty, the democratic model was proposed as relevant to the particular needs of post-conflict Northern Ireland. Unlike the liberal model, authentically democratic policing recognises that internal security is a political activity, and that the high degree of discretion involved in police work must be subject to critical examination by affected members of society. The participatory paradigm is studied here through an examination of district policing partnerships. As we shall see, the paradigm was ultimately rejected in favour of a liberal model that did not deliver the structural transformation of policing sought by the members of the Independent Commission for Policing in Northern Ireland. The asymmetrical communicative relationship between the police and societal actors meant that district policing partnerships were unable to influence the distribution of coercive force. An appreciation of the dialectic at issue furthers our understanding of the distinction between liberal conceptions of order and democratic legitimacy.

The dialectic of policing

The history of policing in Britain reveals how an emerging liberal mindset within the nineteenth-century state, perceiving the masses as brutal, superstitious and unenlightened, came to consider the forms of justice often dispensed by small communities as unacceptable. From early on, therefore, the police were expected to protect all that was scientific, rational and progressive in the industrialising state. Taking policing from the rural masses and centralising it was not a straightforward task. In Britain, parliamentary bills proposed in 1785, 1818 and 1822 all failed to pass since it was argued that a centralised police force was an attempt to increase government power and patronage (Rawlings, 2002: 72). It took until 1829 for Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Bill to argue successfully that a single police force for London would counter what were seen to be inefficiencies in the system of parochial authority, whereby ratepayers paid for local police officers. Having severed its link with local communities, policing came under the influence of Victorian reformers for whom the police would become a weapon to be used against the disorder and immorality of the working classes during the Industrial Revolution (Reiner, 2000: 25). This contrast between the subjectivity of society and uniformed men, whose function it is to uphold the objectifying liberal order against the 'dangerous classes', is a theme that has arguably evolved over time from being founded on class-based fear to incorporate wider, identity-related insecurities.

It is evident that as soon as policing was removed from the community level, it came to be viewed as something imposed and thereby illegitimate. And whenever the authority of the police came into question, violence was used to reassert that authority. Since any use of force tended to make the police even more unpopular, police administrators began to examine ways that could solidify the authority of the police so as to make their work more consensual. …

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