The police forces of Northern Ireland - history, perception and problems

A short review

Seminar Paper, 2006

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1 Introduction

2 Policing in Northern Ireland
2.1 Ulster Special Constabulary
2.2 Royal Ulster Constabulary

3 Police-Community Relations

4 Problems within the Polices forces

5 Conclusion

6 Works Cited

1 Introduction

In the conflict between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists in Northern Ireland the security forces have played and continue to play a controversial and crucial role. Hailed by Loyalists as defenders of Ulster, condemned by Nationalists for their biased, sectarian practices, the police forces were often not mediators between both sides but combatants in the ‘Troubles’ who fueled the conflict. This paper intends to look at the history of policing in Northern Ireland from 1920 to 2001, focusing on the early years in order to show a path-dependency of the ‘Troubles’. It will substantiate that the conflict between the police forces and the population during the ‘Troubles’, beginning in 1968, was not a singular, isolated event that can be examined without its historical context. But rather, the seed of this conflict had been planted fifty years prior, when Northern Ireland’s police forces were established.

Chapter 3 looks at the public perception surrounding policing and will examine the differences and similarities of opinion between Catholics and Protestants. Chapter 4 deals with the internal problems facing policing. Furthermore, it will question Seamus Mallon’s, a former deputy leader of the SDLP and Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister from 1998 to 2001, statement that the RUC was “97% Protestant and 100% unionist” (Royal Ulster Constabulary 2006).

2 Policing in Northern Ireland

2.1 Ulster Special Constabulary

Until the partition of the six northern counties from the twenty-six southern counties of Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act 1920 and the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) policed the island of Ireland as a whole. In November of 1920 the Ulster Special Constabulary (USC) was created as an armed auxiliary force for the RIC in the six northern counties. Originally an agreement – the so-called Craig-Collins pact – was reached stipulating that the USC units posted in Belfast’s mixed districts and those units that carried out arms searches should be half Catholic and half Protestant. Furthermore, it was agreed that an advisory committee was to be established, which would be made up of Catholics and which would take part in the selection of Catholic recruits. However, the above agreement was never enforced. As USC officers were largely recruited from the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and the Orange Order, the Ulster Special Constabulary consequently became a sectarian force (Weitzer 1995, 41). The USC was divided into three categories: A Specials, B Specials, C Specials.

The so-called A Specials were paid, full-time officers who were given the same arms and equipment as the RIC. Unlike the RIC, the A Specials could only serve within the division where they were recruited, which means that they were posted in their home areas. The B Specials were unpaid officers but received an allowance for service and clothing. They served part-time duty (usually one evening per week plus training drills) under their own command structure in the area were they lived. The C Special were the USC’s reserve force. They were unpaid, non-uniformed reservists, and only to be called out in case of a crisis. Within two months of its foundation the Ulster Special Constabulary consisted of 3,500 A Specials, 16,000 B Specials, and 1,000 C Specials. The USC duties and responsibilities were to assist the RIC and later the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) during public disturbances, to staff road checkpoints, to carry out border patrols, and to counter IRA attacks (ibid., 32).

In these first years, the B Specials who had intimate knowledge of the local areas where they operated and could detect suspicious activity quickly, proved to be most effective in fighting IRA activity and hence became the main counterinsurgency force in Northern Ireland. By the summer of 1922, within less than two years of the USC’s foundation, the IRA was overpowered and the police services in Northern Ireland were reorganized. The A and C Specials were dispensed. The B Specials were upgraded, received proper uniforms and continued their regular trainings, drills, and exercises. When the Ulster Defence Volunteers (UDV), Northern Ireland’s home guard during World War II, were created in 1940, the B Specials made up its core. The Ulster Special Constabulary continued to exist and many B Special officers were mobilized again in the mid-1950s to fight the IRA’s Border Campaign (1956-1962) until it was finally stood down in November of 1970 (History. The B-Specials 2006).

2.2 Royal Ulster Constabulary

The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was founded on 1 June 1922 when the responsibility for internal security was devolved from Westminster to Belfast. The RUC succeeded the RIC as Northern Ireland’s police force and initially consisted of 3,000 officers. A committee established in 1922 to examine the structure of the RUC proposed Catholic recruitment to be proportionate to the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, that being one-third. 1,000 of the RUC’s 3,000 officers were to be recruited from the RIC and the remaining 2,000 from the USC and Protestant members of the RIC. However, the committee’s recommendations were never incorporated (Mulcahy 2006, 7). From its foundation the RUC was both a paramilitary and a highly political force. The RUC was responsible for ordinary crime as well as internal security. Nonetheless the RUC was more a militia than a police force as the protection of citizens was subordinate to the fight against the Nationalist insurrection.

While the relations between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and Northern Ireland’s Protestant community were in general – apart from occasional minor complaints – fairly good, the RUC’s relations to the Catholic population were rather difficult due to its political role and extensive powers (Weitzer 1995, 36f.). The RUC was involved in sectarian murders of Catholics, had close ties to the Minstry of Home Affairs, was tolerant of Orange Order’s attacks on Catholics, and was authorized under the Special Powers Act of 1922 to use punishments such as whipping or death for the possession or use of explosives and weapons (ibid., 43). Nationalist criticism of the police forces and their biased practices were often condemned by Unionists as “‘sinister […] attacks […] upon our police force, which the entire law-abiding population of our country knows is doing a splendid job’” (qtd. in Weitzer 1995, 56).

Until the beginning of the ‘Troubles’ the number of RUC officers never exceeded 3,500 but with reorganization of the police forces taking place, the number of RUC officers increased. At its peak the RUC consisted of approximately 8,500 officers plus a further 4,500 full-time and part-time reserve officers (Policing a Divided Society 1995). Following the recommendations of the Report of the Independent Commission on Policing in 1999 – generally referred to as the Patten Report – the Royal Ulster Constabulary was transformed into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in November of 2001 (Mulcahy 2006, 179). The PSNI received new badges representing the different and shared traditions of both communities, and employs a positive discrimination police to reverse religious imbalances, meaning that fifty percent of new recruits have to be Catholic. Furthermore, a Police Ombudsman, a Complaints Tribunal, and a new Policing Board were created (cf. ibid., 153-159 and 179-182).

3 Police-Community Relations

The perception of Northern Ireland’s police forces was mixed. The official opinion of British MPs and Ministers was that “‘99.9 percent of the people of Northern Ireland, agrees that in point of fact the RUC is a respectable force, and that it is sheer nonsense to critize it.’” (qtd. in Weitzer 1995, 36). However, polls conducted in the late 1970s to early 1990s refuted this statement and indicated significant differences of opinion between both groups with regard to certain aspects of policing. While most Protestants had a positive view of the security forces, the opinion amongst Catholics was divided and more negative. Protestants were in general more content with the police. Eighty-five percent of them expressed satisfaction with police work, in contrast to fifty percent of Catholics. But despite being less satisfied with police than Protestants, eighty-five percent of Catholics stated that the RUC was helpful when contacted as opposed to eighty-six percent of Protestants. The number of Protestants who believed the police do a good job dropped from 1978 to 1989 by almost thirty percentage points to sixty-five percent. The corresponding number of Catholics decreased in the same period gradually from seventy-three (1978) to sixty-one percent (1989).


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The police forces of Northern Ireland - history, perception and problems
A short review
University of Tubingen
LPS The Northen Irish Troubles
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ISBN (Book)
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This paper deals with Northern Ireland's polices forces. It depicts their history and deals with some key issues (public perception, problems within the forces..).
Northern, Ireland, Northen, Irish, Troubles, police, discrimination, history, policing
Quote paper
Johannes Steffens (Author), 2006, The police forces of Northern Ireland - history, perception and problems, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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