By Jim Gibney (for the Irish News)
In a normal democratic society the police, the criminal justice system and the Director of Public Prosecutions perform a very important function for the citizen.
They provide a legal and moral framework which allows the citizen to live freely and in security with their neighbours.
These institutions ultimately derive their authority from the will of the people. Those who work in these institutions are public servants. They are supposed to act in the public’s interest.
Citizens bestow their authority and consent to be governed and protected by them provided they do not abuse their power as happened here.
In a normal society an individual will rarely come into official contact either with the police or the criminal justice system.
If they do then the citizen is experiencing a difficulty they cannot resolve or else these institutions are not functioning in the citizen’s interest.
A well balanced harmonious ideal society is one where the police and justice systems are almost invisible, like wallpaper in a living room, occasionally commented on.
In an abnormal, undemocratic illiberal society, the police and judiciary are used and abused to suit the interests of the establishment.
Both are used to impose undemocratic and oppressive rule.
These circumstances invariable lead to conflict, sometimes, civil most times armed.
There is a view which argues that in liberal democracies the state and not the citizen is supreme; that the state functions in the interests of its ruling class and the police and judiciary are instruments of the state, there to serve the ruling class and not the citizen.
Some republicans are employing this argument against Sinn Féin’s recent decision to support the PSNI.
There is some merit and considerable historical and contemporary evidence to back up this view especially from those parts of the world where liberal democracy is less well developed.
However, too rigid an application of this view overlooks the massive democratic strides forward made by working class people in placing the citizen’s right’s at the heart of western political culture.
Too rigid an interpretation of this view also leaves political activists paralysed and unable to take advantage of changing circumstances.
This is what is happening to a small number of republicans. It is the tradition of citizen’s civic rights, which Sinn Féin is bringing to bear on the issue of policing and criminal justice north and south but particularly in the north where both were shaped to preserve in perpetuity a one-party unionist sectarian state.
This is the first time the policing and justice establishment in the six counties has been exposed to this type of pressure and scrutiny.
It is the first time they have been confronted by a party like Sinn Féin with a proven record of campaigning for maximum change; a party which has shown it is capable of using its formidable influence inside an institution to benefit those hitherto excluded from power and influence.
Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun as ministers in the executive ably displayed this.
It is worth recalling that the architects of the Sunningdale Agreement in 1973, which included the SDLP, made little attempt to change any aspect of the repressive legal system and military forces. The RUC, the Special Branch, the role of MI5 were unchanged.
But for Sinn Féin’s presence and pressure these same forces would have remained untouched under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.
In Sinn Féin Councillor Tom Hartley’s speech at the party’s ard fheis on policing he argued for the demilitarisation of the police, the criminal justice system and the Northern Ireland Office.
The police and the criminal justice systems can be civilianised, the NIO cannot. It should be dismantled and those securocrats responsible for promoting repression should be dismissed. In his speech Mr Hartley identified four requirements for the restoration of normal policing and a justice system: a police and community partnership to ensure safer neighbourhoods, accountability and transparency at managerial and operational level, an unarmed civic police service, all underpinned by human rights law and training. For centuries policing was an instrument of British state power and the armed wing of unionism.
Now it can be neutralised.
No longer a weapon against those working for a united Ireland.