As a young research assistant I was in Northern Ireland on the day of the June 1987 General Election, campaigning for the re-election of my boss the Rev Martin Smyth, Ulster Unionist MP for South Belfast and head of the Orange Order.
Elections in Northern Ireland were always conducted in a way mindful of possible violence or terrorist attack, and an RUC patrol intercepted a car in the vicinity of a school being used as a polling station. The IRA occupants of the car were found to be armed and an explosive device was also found. Mr Smyth was in the vicinity. The polling station was closed until the device could be made safe.
Fortunately there were no deaths or injuries as a consequence of this incident, but it was the rumours that began to circulate – to the effect that an attempt on the life of a Unionist MP had taken place, and that he might have been killed or injured. The media began to draw speculative conclusions, and as a result tensions rose significantly even before the
polls had closed.
It was imperative that the message went out establishing the facts as to what happened, and that this elected representative was unharmed, that the democratic process would continue. Otherwise there would have been considerable reactive violence from groups with an interest in prolonging sectarian violence and disorder.
As a Councillor in Haringey, and for 5 years,the Lib Dem Group’s Spokesperson on Policing, my experience in Northern Ireland was always uppermost in my mind when speaking to the Police or the local Police Consultative Group. The increasing ‘militarisation’ of the police was an issue I raised on several occasions. We were fortunate in having several Borough Commanders who valued factual information disseminated as quickly as possible, dialogue with the public, and a willingness
to take criticism.
What we have now is a Met Police that failed to see the danger of the rumour mill following a violent death at Police hands. Both the Tottenham riots of 1985 and subsequent disturbances followed the deaths of individuals where the Police were blamed. The Met also failed to use the existing framework of consultation, family liaison and community contact – one wonders what they actually expected a grieving family to do?
A couple of weeks ago I wrote on this site that stop and search and the tainted reputation of the police were issues we as Lib Dems should address in the elections for Police Commissioners – regrettably in London we are stuck with the impotent MPA – this means where there are Police Commissioner elections we must have credible candidates and a strong campaign supported with resources from all levels of the party.