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On Patrol in a Polarized City

4 minute read
Laura Blue

It would be nice, the police superintendent says, to take down the high, barbed-wire-topped walls that ring Antrim Road police station. Plenty else has changed already. The petrol bombs and bullets that the walls used to hold back have stopped flying. Guards at the gate no longer keep their guns conspicuously unholstered. In fact, so much has changed in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) that when a young Roman Catholic like Rory Fitzpatrick–who just 15 years ago could have viewed the force as his natural enemy–explains why he joined in 2004, his answers are unremarkable: Good prospects, good work, good pay. “Everyone seems to have us pigeonholed as sectarian, not police but soldiers,” says Fitzpatrick, 27. “That’s not the way it is anymore.”

Here in Belfast, flags, painted sidewalks and political murals still mark territory claimed by each side in the decades-long dispute between predominantly Protestant unionists, who support the region’s union with Britain, and mostly Catholic nationalists, who favor unification with the independent Republic of Ireland to the south.

Like Belfast, the PSNI has managed to shed its sectarian colors only in stages. For decades the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as the PSNI was known until 2001, was seen as pro-unionist. A police report in January revealed that officers colluded with Protestant paramilitaries throughout the 1990s, ignoring murders carried out by police informers. But today the PSNI reflects the region’s broad move toward reconciliation, which took another step forward on March 26, when leaders of the long-feuding Democratic Unionist Party and the nationalist Sinn Fein Party agreed to form a power-sharing government on May 8. At the center of the PSNI’s makeover is a 2000 law: 50% of all new recruits must, like Fitzpatrick, have Catholic roots. Today 20% of officers are Catholic, more than twice the share 10 years ago. By 2010, the force is on track to be 30% Catholic.

One drizzly afternoon, Constable Neill Simpson makes his rounds in an armored Land Rover through North Belfast, one of the few districts where it’s still too dangerous for routine foot patrols. His first visit is to Jim Potts, a unionist community official. A tall green “peace fence” winds between the streets, separating unionist Glenbryn from nationalist Ardoyne. Potts tells Simpson about a small riot over the weekend involving 40 or 50 people from each side of the fence. In times past, such altercations might have had deadly consequences. Potts himself was charged with fighting during a high-profile 2001 protest against Catholics who were using a Protestant road to get to a Catholic girls’ primary school. When a fight breaks out these days, Potts and his nationalist counterparts work together to break it up.

Despite the best cross-community relations in decades and increasing political cooperation, it’s still hard to get officers to talk about their place in this long-divided land. When off duty, says Fitzpatrick, “I don’t tell people I work for the police. I tell them I’m in court services.” Simpson, like many other officers, declines to say whether he’s Catholic or Protestant. But in Belfast, even one’s soccer team can reveal identity: most Glasgow Ranger fans are unionist, most Celtic fans nationalist. Simpson avoids this and just says he’s a fan of neutral Liverpool.

Officers are wary with reason. “They’re scum,” says a man clad in Celtic gear at a St. Patrick’s Day parade. But opinions are shifting. Sinn Fein removed the last major obstacle to collaborative policing in January when it voted to support the PSNI. People still see cops as cops, of course. Draped in the Republic of Ireland’s tricolor just after the parade, a young couple gripes about officers’ clearing out bars right at closing time. “But,” says the man, “we wouldn’t have known anyone in the police in the old days. Now we have friends who’ve joined.” Some walls are coming down already.

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