The RUC, The Bobbies and the Gardaí: The Transfer of Northern Irish Policing Policy

The RUC, The Bobbies and the Gardaí: The Transfer of Northern Irish Policing Policy

‘The Troubles’ of Northern Ireland instilled public fear and anxiety with lasting consequences in not one, but three jurisdictions. But how lasting? Here, I will assess the success of the transfer of RUC policing policy to both the UK and Ireland.

As a consequence of globalisation, states are increasingly looking to each other for more efficient and successful policy measures – often without reflecting on the possible repercussions of such transplantation. The policy transfer from Northern Ireland to Britain and the Republic of Ireland is such a case. The Troubles were a cause of much fear and anxiety and the policies, especially those governing the Northern Irish police force, most certainly had an impact on all three jurisdictions.

The Contagion Thesis

The Contagion thesis, advanced by Hillyard (1985), illustrates how the conflict in Northern Ireland fundamentally served as a ‘testing ground’ for the extension of authoritarian powers through the use of repressive technologies and policies. He noted that Northern Ireland’s controversial present was Britain’s foreseeable future: the draconian policies of heavily armed police, non-jury courts and substantial police powers would soon transfer to the North’s closest neighbours. Hillyard was convinced that his contagion thesis only had negative consequences for the states that would be imitating those policies and, to a certain extent, he was correct.

In response to the Birmingham Pub Bombings, Westminster passed the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, 1974. This Act was constantly renewed, amended and extended. Furthermore, this ‘interim’ legislation was subsequently used for reasons other than those intended by the Act, especially the stipulations regarding arrest and interrogation. This misuse resulted in the formation of an Irish ‘suspect community’ in Britain. Clearly these ‘emergency’ measures were becoming a normal aspect of the criminal justice system – exactly what Hillyard had feared.

Emergency measures were also enacted in the Republic with the declaration of a state of emergency in relation to Northern Ireland along with the passing of the Emergency Powers Act, 1976 complementing the existing law under the Offences Against the State Act, 1939. The 1976 Act was further extended following the Omagh Bombings. In sum, the right to silence was curtailed along with a massive extension of police powers for the purposes of detention and interrogation. A Special Criminal Court was also convened to hear issues of a paramilitary nature. However, these measures soon proved to be as controversial as their British counterparts. The Gardaí were implicated in a number of scandals of methodical ill-treatment of suspects through the use of the ‘Heavy Gang’– a group that specialised in the procurement of confessions through brutality. The SCC was also heavily criticised for hearing cases of a non-paramilitary nature including the death of Josie Dwyer in which some suspects were tried in regular courts while others charged with the same offence were tried in the SCC. Thus the negative side-effects of such a policy transfer, as stipulated by Hillyard, are genuine concerns.


Mulcahy (2005) does not deny the tremendous, extensive and negative impact of such a policy transfer, but he does seek to qualify it with respect to the societal and cultural experiences of the neighbouring jurisdictions. Mulcahy also argues that not every aspect of this policy transfer had a negative outcome.

Mulcahy also believes that Northern Ireland served as a ‘testing ground’, but he concludes that rather than being a manifestation of authoritarian rule, the tactics used in Northern Ireland were implemented to contain the industrial unrest and inner city riots of the 1970s and 80s. British public order training is among the most intensive in the world, and continues to be as the 2011 Riots can attest to. Senior British police officers did in fact visit Northern Ireland to discuss the success of the RUC’s crowd and riot control methods (Mulcahy, 2005: 189). Furthermore, there is the generally positive effect of the RUC in the global context as part of the export of UK police for peacekeeping missions, particularly to the Balkans. Sinclair (2014) argues that the RUC, due to their experience of divided communities, was the closest the UK came to a ‘gendarmerie’ model of policing.

The positive effects of a policy transfer to the Republic, however, are not as apparent due to a historical antagonism between the RUC and the Gardaí. For these reasons, policy transfer during the conflict itself was rare. However initiatives such as the Anglo-Irish Agreement, 1985 developed closer links between the two forces allowing for a transfer of both policy and technology, such as the use of water cannons borrowed from the North against rioting protestors during an EU summit in 2004 (Mulcahy, 2005: 198).

Mulcahy also points to a number of social and cultural aspects that may have diminished the impact of the policy transfer. With respect to Britain, with the peacefulness of political life and the hesitation to use brute force, he says that the Northern Irish model may have been considered unsuited to a manifestly English culture of policing (2005: 197). Although police brutality still exists, those that engage in it appear to receive much harsher chastisement than their counterparts in the USA for example.

In the Republic, one of the most tenacious claims was that the conflict in the North was having a direct effect on crime levels. Mulcahy, however, is not convinced. He points to concurrent rises in crime throughout Europe demonstrating that broader processes were at work. Moreover he deduces that the rise in crime in the South pre-dates the worst years of The Troubles. Lastly, Mulcahy suggests that the rise in crime rates directly linked to the conflict would have been limited to specific types such as bank robberies. It is clear, that although Hillyard’s thesis certainly points to large-scale negative effects, one must also take societal and cultural factors into account when assessing the success of a transfer.

Broader Implications: 9/11 and Ireland’s Resistance to Punitive Culture

Pantazis and Pemberton (2009) argue that there is a clear link between Britain’s response to 21st century terrorism and the Northern Irish Conflict. What is interesting is that – although making reference to Mulcahy – they prefer Hillyard’s model when explaining Britain’s new authoritarian stance. They believe that it is more relevant now than it has ever been. They point to the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, 2001, which made the 1974 Act, originally introduced to deal with ‘Irish terrorism’, permanent. In so doing, the UK has seamlessly continued a long line of liberty-curtailing, counter-terrorism measures that had been legislated for during The Troubles. Furthermore, Hillyard’s ‘suspect community’ has been transferred from the Irish to the Muslim community.

Most interesting is the Republic’s general resistance to these new anxiety-driven punitive measures. As Hamilton (2013) points out, Ireland’s negative views of recent US and UK punitive legislation highlights the constraints on policy transfer. Throughout this piece, we have seen a greater impact of the policy transfer to Britain than to the Republic. Whereas greater cooperation between the two Irish police forces of Ireland is certainly encouraged, it would appear from the evidence stated here that policy transfer has not happened to any great degree, especially in comparison with the UK.

The negative contagion theory has, in many ways, come full circle with regards to the UK. Although the negative impacts, such as abuse of the criminal justice system, cannot be denied in the Republic, it would appear that there is no significant lasting policy transfer since the times of The Troubles. Therefore, it can be argued that the transfer of Northern Irish policy to the UK (whether positive or negative) has firmly taken root, whereas the hard-line approaches of the RUC have failed to impact the Republic’s psyche in any meaningful way.


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