Police Charge More over NI Murders March 27, 2009Posted by Garibaldy in Northern Ireland.
While it rapidly became obvious that the Real and Continuty IRAs enjoy extremely little support for their recent murders of the two soldiers and one policeman, it was also clear that the murders had the potential to cause a political crisis, or spark a new bout of killings. Thankfully the strong words of condemnation from all sides, especially Martin McGuinness, and the statements from Dawn Purvis of the PUP and Jackie McDonald of the UDA that loyalists would not return to violence in response, confirmed that the political institutions remained intact, and that a cycle of tit for tat violence was to be avoided. Nevertheless, this remains a dangerous situation. Although the anti-agreement terrorists enjoy negligible support in the country as a whole, it is clear that in a small number of localised areas, they have secured significant support, especially among disaffected young people. This was visibly illustrated by the TV pictures of a PSF MLA being assaulted by angry youths opposed to the peace process over an internment bonfire. The fact that a 17 year old has been charged with the murder of Constable Carroll, and that a 21 year old has been charged with witholding information suggests that the police certainly believe the recent violence involved some who were barely out of nappies when the first ceasefire was called in 1994.
In these volatile circumstances, it was extremely important that the police acted in a sensible manner. One thing that might have turned these tragic events into a more serious crisis would be the police behaving in a heavy-handed and stupid way that would alienate people and increase support for those violently opposed to the GFA and the PSNI. Almost certainly, those behind the murders were hoping for just such an outcome. The police certainly acted quickly. They met with resistance and minor rioting in the early days of the investigation, but the trouble soon died down, despite repeated attempts from the political groups supporting the terrorists to compare the policing operation to some of the worst excesses of security force operations during the Troubles.
Searches near the murder scene of Constable Carroll resulted in the discovery of several weapons, and two people being charged with the murder, and a third with withholding information. Around a dozen arrests were made in respect of the two cases. However, the fact that the police held so many for nearly two weeks without charge caused a great deal of unease and discontent among nationalists, with Alex Maskey and others calling for people to be charged or released after 7 days. Ultimately a legal challenge resulted in the remaining people being released on the orders of the High Court.
However, Colin Duffy, who had a conviction for a PIRA murder overturned and charges unsuccessfully laid against him for the PIRA killing of two policemen, and was one of a number of people who had been refusing food in custody in protest at their detention, was immediately rearrested. He has now been charged with the murders of the two soldiers and a number of related charges. His lawyers had been told that the police had arrested him on the basis of intelligence rather than any other type of evidence. There is no doubt that this exceptional set of circumstances has in the eyes of many the character of a police vendetta against this man, an appearance that will only deepend in the case against him collapses.
So, have we seen a case of efficient and effective policing in procuring charges in two very difficult cases, or have the police shown that they remain far too likely to abuse or ignore due process in the pursuit of suspects, and have they played into the hands of the dissidents by giving them a propaganda coup? It’s hard to say. Clearly the people charged are to be presumed innocent. Regardless of whether they are guilty or not, the police operation seems to have prevented further attacks, and some weapons have been taken out of circulation. The rioting remained fairly small-scale and localised, and at a distance – it being hard to say if you are not on the ground in the areas concerned – it looks like they avoided further alienating large numbers in the community by heavy-handed searching. But. And there are a number of ‘buts’. The holding of people for so long without charge looked bad, and raised serious human rights concerns among many. These concerns were exacerbated by the immediate re-arrest of Colin Duffy, and it is possible that the speed with which he was subsequently charged was an attempt at damage limitation. But given his history, it is going to be extremely hard to shake the perception of old scores being settled. That he was singled out looks bad, and will give credence to those who wish to argue that the reform of the police has been inadequate, or that they are irreformable. This is certainly the line that has been pushed by the 32 CSM and RSF (see this account of yesterday’s RSF press conference for details).
But, on balance, though the police have used up some of the goodwill or trust of nationalists they have acquired, I think that most people will retain the attitude they held before these events. And the dissidents should look carefully at the public reaction. Although there have been concerns over the length of time people have spent in detention without charge, the attempts to stir up memories of the prison struggles and hunger strikes of the past did not succeed in mobilising support, as with the various protests tried in recent years by sentenced prisoners in the north. The lesson may be that the police could be more sensitive to public concern, but it is also that the dissidents remain as isolated as they were before these murders, if not more.
UPDATE: The police told the court this morning that they had a “full dna profile” of Colin Duffy on the tip of a latex glove found inside a Vauxhall Cavalier used by the murderers.
UPDATE 2: His family say he is prepared to starve himself to death in protest at his arrest and detention.