Aa we look forward to 2003, one of the depressingly predictable trends that seems set to continue is the steady rise in regular crime, paramilitarism, and organised crime.
Some like to trace these increases to the Agreement. However, the Agreement provides the means to assert the primacy of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
A better explanation for this crime rise lies in the increased institutionalisation of difference in our society. When people are conditioned to view each other in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’ rather than part of a united community, this fuels sectarian hatred, competition for resources and territory and ultimately violence. What level of resources is spent policing interface areas?
Any debate on policing and law and order cannot be separated from a debate about community relations. Yet, in recent years, debates on law and order and criminal justice in Northern Ireland have not sufficiently addressed these realities.
Instead, there has had a narrow focus upon reform of policing and criminal justice structures, and demands for inquiries into particular allegations against the state.
The current policing bill working its way through Parliament is the clearest example of this tendency. There is the danger of a mass outbreak of Patten fundamentalism, where nationalist parties engage in ever more obscure arguments far removed from the day-to-day reality of policing, with the Government in pursuit.
There is little in the proposed amendments that would undermine the effectiveness of the police, but there is little there that could improve it.
Policing structures should be based upon community needs rather than appeasing a political agenda. People are more interested in whether there are enough police officers to respond quickly and properly investigate crime, with a reasonable prospect of convicting offenders.
Action is required at a number of levels.
The greatest challenge is to increase police numbers, particularly by getting new recruits serving the whole community onto the streets.
The 50:50 quota is a sectarian straitjacket that should be removed. It is discriminatory and turns the merit principle on its head. We have the crazy situation where the total number of recruits is cut when sufficient numbers of Catholics are not attracted. The solution to the problem of low Catholic recruitment lies in encouraging enough people to apply. More flexible affirmative action targets for underrepresented sections of the community, including women, ethnic minorities and Catholics, should replace quotas.
There is also a problem with law enforcement in Northern Ireland. While the police should be congratulated for some spectacular successes against organised crime in recent months, some of our worst problems go largely unaddressed.
At times, it seems that the more people there are engaged in lawlessness, such as street violence or public disorder, the more likely it is that their crimes will go unchallenged.
There has been major public concern over the failure of the PSNI, Housing Executive and Roads Service to intervene or remove offensive paramilitary murals and territorial flags. While not all of the burden should be placed on the authorities, there are grounds in criminal law and under equality legislation for these bodies to act. But where the law is unclear, it can be tightened up.
There is also growing evidence of a culture of lawlessness in Northern Ireland. Too many people fail to appreciate the value of the rule of law to themselves and society as a whole.
Without law and order we have the law of the jungle. In such a situation, opportunities and resources are not distributed on the basis of merit or need, but rather go to the strongest.
Where society can play a particular role in helping the police is through fostering a culture of lawfulness. This exists when society is sympathetic to and acts in accordance with the rule of law. There are important roles to be played by the media, churches, civic leaders and especially schools.
Stephen Farry is the Alliance Party’s Justice Spokesperson