Belfast police live longer now 297 died: The cease-fire has held in Northern Ireland, allowing Belfast police to talk to people, rather than hunt them in packs. At the height of the "troubles," the IRA was killing a police officer a month.

Sun Journal

March 30, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- On May 4, 1973, a sniper shot Constable Jim Seymour in the head as he opened the gate to a fortified police station. For more than two decades, he lay paralyzed in a coma, a painful symbol in a long line of police casualties from this land's sectarian warfare. Constable Seymour died March 2, 1995.

There may never have been a more dangerous place to be a police officer than the gritty streets of Belfast. Across 25 bloody years, officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary -- strongly identified with the Protestant community -- were slain at an average of one a month.

They were not incidental victims but chosen targets of assassins who stalked them on the job and at home.

"We can't tell people what work we do. We can't even hang our uniform shirts on the line to dry. It's frustrating because we're proud of what we do," says Constable Darryl Flanagan, on patrol on Friendly Street in a tough Catholic neighborhood.

Two years ago, a police officer died on Friendly Street when an Irish Republican Army rocket-propelled grenade destroyed his armored police van. Today, there are still tensions galore, but there has been no cross-community bloodshed in Northern Ireland for almost 20 months.

The IRA broke a cease-fire in London last month with bombings (( and has refused all appeals to reinstate it. But there seems little will on either side for a return to violence in Northern Ireland itself.

"We don't have rose-tinted glasses on, but the cease-fire hasn't been broken here, and we are carefully avoiding any knee-jerk reactions for a return to a war footing," says Dave Hanna, chief spokesman for the police.

The police force is re-examining its own identity -- and its future. -- "We used to hunt in packs. Now we are learning the art of normal policing, which is communication with the public," says Adrian R. Robinson, a precinct commander.

But how does a force reinvent itself? How do men and women, as much soldiers as police officers, adapt to routine police work?

How does a postwar community relate to an image-tarnished force that has symbolized, some say exacerbated, the gap between majority Protestants and minority Catholics?

Some answers are evolving day by day on the streets. The Royal Ulster Constabulary is studying proposals for transformation to "peacetime policing." The British government also is preparing a white paper to outline structural reform of the force.

Neither is apt to find favor with Sinn Fein, political arm of the IRA: It wants the royal constabulary disbanded. Nor are calls for change likely to attract protective Protestant politicians or a union of police officers that warns it will reject any proposals that go beyond "evolutionary changes."

"Our job is to hold the ground until there is a political solution," says Bill Stewart, the Belfast police chief. "So far the transition has gone more smoothly than anticipated. We thought it might prove tougher to acclimatize to normal policing."

From 1969 until the cease-fire began on Sept. 1, 1994, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, heavily reinforced by the British army, held the ground at the cost of 297 dead and 7,600 injured. In 1983, Interpol found that Northern Ireland was twice as deadly for police as second-place El Salvador, then aflame in civil war.

"I was called to a murder scene my second day on the job in By now I've been to hundreds. An English bobby might go to one in a 30-year career," says Terence L. McConnell, a senior officer who worked the streets for 18 years.

In Northern Ireland, population 1.5 million, police counted 35,000 shootings and 15,000 explosions. The Royal Constabulary says it seized 11,000 firearms and 246,400 pounds of explosives.

Police patrols, Belfast-style, are by now legendary: When rocket-propelled grenades made a single armored Land Rover too vulnerable, a second vehicle was added, Officer McConnell recalls. When terrorists began to spray the first vehicle with gunfire and aim their grenades at the second, police added a third vehicle full of soldiers, two of them standing, weapons ready, through a cut-out section of the roof.

"The terrorists' main goal was to kill police and soldiers," says Officer McConnell. "Everything you did was in the context of potential terrorist involvement, and every call could mean an ambush. We responded accompanied by soldiers, with more soldiers as backup and more police on periphery patrol as safeguard against ambush. It was frustrating, but we had to wait at the risk of getting somebody killed."

Then, it could take police more than 20 minutes to double-check that a call was genuine and to respond. Today, some soldiers have returned to Belfast since bombs began exploding in London, but patrol only security areas. Police response time in Belfast is about four minutes.

Over all, terrorism at its peak was responsible for 8 percent of the crime in Belfast but demanded 70 percent to 80 percent of police resources to confront it, says Derek Martindale, Belfast chief of detectives.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.