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Institutions, trust and policing

This week sees the resumption of peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Kuala Lumpur.

One of the issues under discussion is a plan for a new system of policing in the Bangsamoro region. This raises difficult issues, legal and political. I know how hard this can be, because we faced our own challenges in the United Kingdom when we reformed policing in Northern Ireland, following the Good Friday Agreement.

The Northern Ireland conflict drove a wedge between those who wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom (Unionists) and those who wanted a United Ireland (Nationalists).

Along with the British army, the police were on the front line of ensuring law and order. Many brave men and women were killed in the line of duty. However, by the time the Good Friday Agreement was concluded the institution of the police had lost the trust of the nationalist community.

One reason for this was that it was overwhelmingly staffed by members of the unionist community.

Reform of the police was therefore a core part of the process of peace building. While there was broad consensus that things needed to change, there was no consensus on how it could be achieved. The solution was the creation of an independent commission tasked with reviewing the police service and recommending necessary reforms.

The goal of the reform was to set up a police service that was professional, effective and accountable, free from partisan control and able to protect the human rights of all.

One of the most visible and early reforms was to make the police service more representative of the whole community, by increasing recruitment from the nationalist minority.

Another crucial reform was to make the police service more accountable to the public via a statutory policing board that included representatives from across the community. And as the situation progressed from conflict to peace, the approach to policing changed from a heavily militarised one to one that was more community-oriented.

The reforms were controversial. Some aspects were fiercely opposed by sections of the community, including changing the name of the force from Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. However, this was regarded as crucial in signalling a new start.

The Northern Ireland police have recently been greatly tested.

Tensions have again flared this year, and a number of demonstrations have turned violent, with police injured in the line of duty. We face an ongoing threat from violent opponents of the peace process who seek to kill policemen, fortunately without much success.

One reason for that is that the peace process is strongly supported across the whole of Northern Ireland. An attack on the police is now seen not as an attack against one community, but against the whole of society. It reflects changing perceptions about “the” police and growing confidence that it is “our” police.

The GPH and MILF have already decided to set up a police commission to review policing arrangements in the Bangsamoro. It will need to find its own solutions to the unique challenges in Mindanao: there is no easy template to take from Northern Ireland or elsewhere. But there are basic lessons and principles which can be drawn from these different peace processes.

Not least among these is the need to build trust, and institutions that can command trust. And in the case of the police, I would argue that trust is achieved not through the strength of their weapons, but through the values of their officers, and through the legal and political mechanisms which hold them to account.