‘What was it all for?’

Why are former Royal Ulster Constabulary officers seeking compensation for stress now, 10 years after the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland?

Chris Gilligan

Topics Politics

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The Police Federation of Northern Ireland’s five-year campaign to bring a class action for compensation for police officers who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder arrived in the courts this week (1). One retired officer told reporters outside the court in Belfast, where the case opened on 7 November: ‘You have nightmares…You relive the events you have seen – the murders, the bodies, the body parts you have picked up.’ (2)

The role that the police played in the frontline of the conflict in Northern Ireland – when they were called the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) – will certainly have placed strains on individual officers. Between August 1969 and 1994, when the Irish Republican Army (IRA) declared a ceasefire, 296 members of the RUC were killed as a direct result of the conflict; many more were injured.

And yet, exposure to traumatic incidents is not the basis on which the class action is being taken. As the Police Federation press release points out: ‘The officers are not claiming for the exposure to traumatic incidents in itself – they accepted the risks of service in Northern Ireland… The plaintiffs’ case is that they were inadequately equipped to deal with the effects of the extremely traumatic nature of their duties… their authorities failed to deal properly with the predictable psychiatric and psychological consequences of such duties….’ (3)

In other words, individuals knew of the physical dangers involved in joining the RUC but were not fully aware of the psychiatric risks – and the RUC as an employer was apparently wrong not to carry out a systematic risk assessment which would have helped its employees to deal with the psychological hazards involved in fighting a counterinsurgency war.

Interpreting experiences from the past in terms of ‘trauma’ is a relatively recent phenomenon; as such, it is more a product of the peace process than of the Troubles. A study of serving RUC officers carried out during the conflict, at the end of the 1980s, noted that ‘stress is not a feature of their talk about the paramilitary threat’, and ‘the occupational-therapy unit is not valued highly among ordinary policemen and women because it is seen to be where the “weirdos go”’ (4).

What has changed in the last decade-and-a-half that has turned the issue of mental health from the preserve of ‘weirdos’ to one of the main campaigns of the Police Federation, the organisation that represents the interests of former and serving police officers in Northern Ireland?

In the past, the fact that police officers were engaged in a war against the IRA meant that they understood their experiences in political terms. In 1991, academics John Brewer and Kathleen Magee noted that, among officers, ‘there is no wish to give the paramilitaries this degree of satisfaction or influence; and the masculine occupational culture militates against the public expression of emotional feelings’ (5). Both of these factors constrained officers from expressing their experiences through the idiom of stress. Today, neither of these factors still exists – thus there is a space for theories of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to make sense of past experiences. With the development of a peace process, the paramilitaries no longer represent a threat to the social order in Northern Ireland – and today’s wider therapy culture encourages people to give public expression to their emotions.

The impact of therapy culture in Northern Ireland can be seen in the way that the police have embraced the language of victimhood. As part of the peace process, there was a review of policing in Northern Ireland. Chris Patten, the former Conservative Party minister, was appointed to oversee a process of consultation on policing reform. His report recommended far-reaching changes to the police service – including changing its name from the RUC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). It was in the context of the Patten report, as one commentator observed, that the RUC started using the language of victimhood as ‘part of an effort to thwart proposals for radical change and to ensure that an “evolutionary” perspective of police reform prevailed’ (6). In this sense, the Police Federation is taking its cue from the PSNI itself, and the class action is simply the latest initiative to present the police as victims of the Troubles.

In representing their members as victims, the federation is calling on a theme that has powerful resonance in contemporary society. But is it really fighting for its members’ interests with such a lawsuit? Will serving or retired police officers really benefit from the argument that their problems are caused by stress and may be helped or alleviated by therapy and compensation?

An interesting study of the psychological health of retired RUC officers carried out in 1998 found that nine of the 20 officers interviewed were diagnosable as suffering from PTSD. The violence they witnessed was not, however, the only issue on their minds. Two of the former officers made explicit reference to the early release of convicted terrorists as part of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and assessed their past actions in relation to these present events. The report’s authors note that two of the retirees ‘were particularly dejected about their current psychological state, asking, “What was it all for?”’ (7).

The question ‘what was it all for?’ goes to the heart of the issue. The experiences that these officers went through had meaning for them at the time: as they saw it, they were fighting for a reason, for a cause. But in the context of the peace process, they have been deprived of this meaning. The problem, it seems to me, is not so much that the context has changed, but that no new framework of meaning has been developed through which people can make sense of the past or of their experiences in the present.

The agreeing to disagree nature of the Good Friday Agreement allows each faction to provide their own story about the Troubles: some argue that it was a war of liberation, others that it was a war fought in defence of the Union, and others still that it was a war against terrorism. Such a free-for-all means that people can start wondering what they fought for, whether it was worth it, and can begin to see their earlier actions as having a detrimental psychological impact.

The spread of therapy culture in Northern Ireland is a product of the peace process. As the conflict recedes into the past but debates about its impact on individuals continue, so individuals – even police officers – can claim to be stressed and disorientated. The Police Federation is seeking a solution to these problems through the courts, but it is only in the political domain that an answer to the question ‘what was it all for?’ might be found.

Chris Gilligan is a lecturer in sociology at the University of Ulster, and reviews editor for the journal Ethnopolitics.

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(1) PTSD group action – one month to trial, Police Beat, October 2005, p. 36 ; Police Officers’ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Case Opens, Police Federation for Northern Ireland, Press Release

(2) Police officers seek trauma compensation, BBC News, 7 November 2005

(3) Police Officers’ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Case Opens, Police Federation for Northern Ireland, Press Release

(4) Inside the RUC: routine policing in a divided society, John D. Brewer (with Kathleen Magee), Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1991, pp. 178-9.

(5) Inside the RUC, p. 178.

(6) Mulcahy, A., 2000. ‘Policing History: the Official Discourse and Organisational Memory of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’. British Journal of Criminology, 40(1), p. 82

(7) Paterson, M.C., Poole, D., Trew, K. and Harkin, N., 2001. ‘The Pyschological and Physical Health of Police Officers Retired Recently from the Royal Ulster Constabulary’. Irish Journal of Psychology, 22(1).

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