Shootings ‘cult of silence’ must end

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

Until Easter Sunday Neil McConville was the only person the PSNI had shot dead. He was killed near Upper Ballinderry, Co Antrim on April 29 2003. A team from the PSNI’s Headquarters Mobile Support Unit had rammed the car he was driving, then shot him and his passenger, who survived.

That incident was the first fatal shooting by police in the north since the RUC shot Pearse Jordan three times in the back on the Falls Road in November 1992 as he ran off after police had rammed a stolen car he was driving. There were no legal consequences for the police.

You can say therefore that it’s quite unusual for police in the north to kill anyone. In fact, out of 3,697 killed as a result of the Troubles police killed 50, or 1.4 per cent.

It’s true of course that those 50 don’t include the number of people killed as a result of police conspiring with loyalist terrorists to murder republicans, nationalists or others they considered undesirables, a total which will not be made public in the lifetime of anyone around today.

Even so, let’s concentrate on killings by police on duty. They’re always controversial because the police’s first duty is to protect life and limb. Secondly they’re controversial because the police’s first instinct is to behave like a secretive cult after a fatal shooting. That doesn’t apply just to the north. Look at the shooting of

Jean-Charles de Menezes in London last August and the tangle of mendacious statements the Metropolitan Police fed to the media in the immediate aftermath.

Have matters improved here since the shooting of Pearse Jordan 14 years ago? Has the new civilianised PSNI made any difference?

Has the Police Ombudsman? Has a new chief constable unsullied with the taint of the RUC brought a new openness? Has the Policing Board brought a new accountability to these matters?

First, the PSNI is not civilianised. They are the only fully armed police service in these islands.

Unlike in the Republic or Britain all officers here are firearms officers. One certain consequence follows from that fact.

When police carry guns they are likely to use them. Luckily, fatal shootings have been tiny in number but only because of luck.

Far too often the PSNI have opened fire on thieves in cars trying to evade checkpoints and they have always got away with it by saying the driver drove at the police in such as manner as to endanger their lives. What do gardai or British police do when car thieves swerve at them, an event which happens on a daily basis?

What difference has the Ombudsman made?

None, it would seem. Police remain as likely to fire at drivers as they ever were. Neil McConville was shot dead three years ago next week. Still no Ombudsman’s report.

We know from leaks it will be bad for the PSNI, that police destroyed evidence and senior officers’ actions will be called into question. So what? If any prosecutions are recommended the disgracefully slow prosecution service here will dawdle for years.

On past experience it will be 2009 before there’s a result from the Ombudsman’s office about the shooting in Ballynahinch on Sunday. Not good enough. Justice delayed is justice denied.

What about the role of the Policing Board and the new chief constable? After Sunday’s shooting a member of the Policing Board was reported in this newspaper actually saying it “raised serious questions about PSNI policy”. Like, he’s not supposed to know PSNI policy or be responsible for it? What’s really disappointing is the silence from the chief constable. A man has been shot dead by one of his officers in questionable circumstances.

Here was a great opportunity to show there’s been a sea change in policing here.

A chance to make a statement showing the PSNI is part of society and not a separate cult - to say police concerned have been suspended from duty pending the outcome of an investigation. Instead, silence.

At least in the case of de Menezes the Metropolitan Police issued a statement of regret at the loss of life. That would have been decent in the case of Ballynahinch.

The public is entitled to that.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News