Brian Feeney: Old habits of secrecy die hard for PSNI

Force’s default position causing enormous damage to attempts to attract nationalist recruits

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

The PSNI has arrested a man over an attack in Co Antrim which saw a man nailed to a fence
(Niall Carson/PA)

Old habits die hard. When it comes to policing and military matters here, the primary one seems to be secrecy.

There’s a new book about one of the men who inspired the SAS, the cross-dressing Brigadier Dudley Clarke. It’s called The Illusionist: The True Story of the Man Who Fooled Hitler.

Written by journalist Robert Hutton, it contains for the first time the contents of Clarke’s memoirs, which his bosses in London refused to allow published. Why? “The fact that secrecy is the default of the British state,” Hutton said in an Irish Times interview.

The evidence suggests the PSNI has taken up and sustained this default position whole-heartedly and with gusto. As a consequence, it’s causing it enormous damage because after nearly 25 years, the PSNI has yet to seal the deal with the nationalist community.

When foreign recruits are deducted, the percentage of nationalists stays stuck around 27%. This at a time when nationalists are a substantial majority in the recruiting age range.

First Minister Michelle O'Neill during the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s attestation ceremony for six newly qualified officers at Garnerville Police College  on Friday.
Sinn Féin attended a PSNI graduation ceremony for the first time.
First Minister Michelle O'Neill and Sinn Féin's Gerry Kelly attend a PSNI graduation ceremony for six newly-qualified officers at Garnerville Police College in Belfast. PICTURE: COLM LENAGHAN

The PSNI maintains a wall of silence on two main fronts. First, against information sought by relatives of people killed in the Troubles, and secondly, by opposing any attempt by journalists to find the truth about controversial cases involving security forces during the Troubles. These fronts are reinforced by what film-maker Trevor Birney calls an “obsession” with journalists’ sources which frightens people off.

For years now, successive chief constables have appealed decisions of coroners courts and the High Court which instruct the police to release material to relatives seeking answers. Again and again these appeals have failed but that hasn’t stopped chief constables going on, sometimes to the Supreme Court.

Quite correctly, the relatives interpret this behaviour as resolute attempts to shield former members of the security forces from justice and to shield the RUC and British army from exposure of their systemic collusion, especially with UVF and UDA terrorists. Besides the deleterious effect on police credibility, it also costs the public purse millions in damages and legal costs.

On the second front, the PSNI shamefully opposes journalism. The evidence revealed at the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) in the case of Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney shows the PSNI regards journalists as ‘the enemy’ to be frustrated, fended off and defeated.

McCaffrey’s barrister, Ben Jaffey KC, told the IPT that the note of a meeting between the PSNI and Durham police appears to disclose the existence of what the PSNI call a ‘defensive operation’” against journalists in the north. Such behaviour is disgraceful in a society which is supposed to be guided by human rights legislation guaranteed by the ECHR, which enshrines the freedom of the press. As Colum Eastwood, who attended the IPT, said: “It’s a scandal.”

Who are the PSNI ‘defending’? Certainly not the public whom they’re supposed to defend. The answer of course is themselves and their mates from years ago.

Barry McCaffrey, centre, and Trevor Birney, third left, with lawyers and supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London .
Barry McCaffrey, centre, and Trevor Birney, third left, with lawyers and supporters outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London (Victoria Jones/PA)

Again, this unacceptable attitude and behaviour has not only cost the PSNI dearly in nationalist support but also, in the case of Birney and McCaffrey, in excess of £1 million in damages and costs with certainly more to come.

What can be done about these actions, hostile as they are to the ECHR and the human rights law the PSNI is required to uphold? It appears nothing. The Policing Board is a paper tiger. Today its chair is supposed to be having a meeting with the chief constable. Nothing will come of it. The chair has such a powerful public persona you don’t even know who the chair is.

So far the new chief constable has been a disappointment. He came into office promising to be more open but he hasn’t been

The chief constable has issued the usual boilerplate statement in true secrecy fashion, ironically for someone who claimed to disagree with the policy, refusing to confirm or deny the unlawful practices happened until after the IPT case concludes. And, of course, blah-di-blah, will fully cooperate with the IPT. Like he’d refuse to?

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher said he would meet with his oversight body
PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher (Liam McBurney/PA)

So far the new chief constable has been a disappointment. He came into office promising to be more open but he hasn’t been. He didn’t stop his officers running down the clock to May 1 to avoid inquests concluding. His Kenova inquiry was a complete failure, blowing £40 million for no result, no prosecutions, no official naming of Scappaticci and recommendations all ignored by our proconsul.

Finally, why are the 600 pages evidence before the IPT from the Durham police? Where’s the PSNI evidence? We know they have to respond by July but maybe it’ll have blown off the top of a car on the M2 by then. What do you think?