The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What the U.S. can learn from the history of Northern Ireland

More policing is not the answer to our unrest

National Guard troops watch as people continue to protest the killing of George Floyd despite the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic on June 6 in Los Angeles. (David Mcnew/Getty Images)
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As Americans debate the future of police reform in Congress, in city councils and in the streets, President Trump has insisted on escalating confrontations, deploying the Park Police and National Guard to help fortify the streets of Washington, D.C. This show of force ended up including the release of a form of tear gas on peaceful protesters and then troops standing guard at the Lincoln Monument.

But increasing policing in this fashion and sending in troops as reinforcements has historically been the action of a desperate government out of alternatives, or the act of a strongman leader seeking to assert power over citizens. This is particularly problematic when the police lack the universal support of all members of a society, and more so when the police stand accused of using deliberate and deadly force against a particular demographic within that society.

This was the case in Northern Ireland a half-century ago. Violent clashes between civil rights marchers and the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a predominantly Protestant police force, began in late 1968 and continued into the summer of 1969, leaving Catholic civilians dead and Catholic politicians hospitalized. The Northern Ireland government requested the assistance of the British Army in August 1969, and British soldiers ended up remaining in Northern Ireland until 2007. The Northern Ireland case reveals how escalation of security operations only serves to exacerbate existing tensions and grievances. Further, it shows that insufficient political reform will undermine the situation, and that police reform must be multidimensional to secure broad legitimacy in the eyes of the communities it serves.

The Northern Ireland conflict had deep roots. Gerrymandering across Northern Ireland following the partition of Ireland in the early 1920s left Catholics, who numbered a little more than a third of the population, without political representation. Discrimination in public housing and employment was compounded by a lack of representation in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Catholics never exceeded 21 percent of the police force and had fallen to roughly 10 percent by the time the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association was formed in 1967. NICRA drew inspiration from the civil rights campaign in the United States, holding marches, sit-ins and pickets, during which protesters would sing “We Shall Overcome” and “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

Members of the RUC, as well as Protestant counterprotesters, were involved in violent confrontation with civil rights marchers across Northern Ireland over the course of 1968.

When a five-point plan proposed by the government in November 1968 fell short of the demands of the civil rights movement, protests accelerated. A student civil rights group planned a march from Belfast to Derry on New Year’s Day 1969, modeled on the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965. Much like in Alabama, it was met with violence. Members of the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC), a reserve special constable unit that was notoriously aggressive and overwhelmingly Protestant, were among the group that attacked the march at Burntollet Bridge, on the outskirts of Derry, on Jan. 4, 1969.

Police violence against civil rights campaigners continued through the early months of 1969. In Derry on April 19, 1969, following clashes between the police and a civil rights march, the RUC chased a group of youths into the home of the Devenney family, Catholics who had not been involved in the disturbances. The police beat Samuel Devenney and three of his children. Devenney died of his injuries in July 1969, two days after another Catholic civilian, Francis McCloskey, was fatally beaten by the police.

The conflict erupted in the streets that summer during annual marches commemorating events from the 17th century that celebrated Protestant military victories over Catholic forces. But this time, politicians took action. Northern Ireland Prime Minister James Chichester-Clark called a meeting of the Cabinet Security Committee on July 15 and “expressed his concern at the reporting of [McCloskey’s] death by the Irish News and thought that this could not do other than exacerbate the situation.” His solution was to mobilize the Ulster Special Constabulary.

Within a month of the deaths of McCloskey and Devenney, the situation had deteriorated further. Deploying the USC had been highly provocative to Catholics, and the unit was armed and not trained for riot duty. Rioting in Derry had seen the RUC attempt to enter Catholic areas, and it deployed tear gas when residents beat them back, the first time it was ever used by police in the United Kingdom. In Belfast, Catholics had been burned out of their homes. On Aug. 14, eight people died in trouble across Northern Ireland, including 9-year-old Patrick Rooney, who was killed by a stray bullet that entered his home.

That day, the Northern Irish government requested the assistance of the British Army. As troops deployed, British Home Secretary Jim Callaghan assured members of Parliament that the measure would be temporary. Instead, Operation Banner, the British code name for the deployment to Northern Ireland, became the longest operation in U.K. military history. Many Catholic areas initially welcomed the soldiers, who were seen to be protecting them from Protestant mobs and the police. Relations soon soured, however, as troops, conditioned to aggressive counterinsurgency operations across the collapsing British Empire, conducted searches, raids, patrols and imposed curfews on Catholic areas without reciprocal actions in Protestant areas.

Military methods could only provide temporary reprieve in Northern Ireland. The eventual onset of the Northern Ireland peace process, aided by the support of President Bill Clinton, saw a focus on the establishment of a power-sharing government elected by proportional representation, paramilitary disarmament and police reform. It took until January 2007 before the major Catholic-nationalist party, Sinn Féin, endorsed the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, which recruited equally from the Protestant and Catholic communities. More generally, it took the will of all communities in Northern Ireland, and their political leaders, to enact change after decades of fighting.

The Northern Ireland conflict claimed over 3,500 lives. Experts believe that over one-third of the population of Northern Ireland suffered a traumatic event related to the conflict. In a country the size of the United States, that would compare to 500,000 dead. The number of injuries, physical and psychological, would run into the millions. At a time when political divisions in the United States appear intractable, we would all be well served by looking to the example of Northern Ireland and working to avoid similar mistakes.