The weakness of claims that the police in the north are being made accountable and subjected to scrutiny has been exposed by the announcement from the PSNI that it is to press ahead with the introduction of taser weapons. Within the next few weeks a small number of officers will begin training in their use when twelve of the guns are to be issued to specialist response teams. These particular weapons will be capable of delivering a 50,000-volt shock to a subject.
The dangers of such weapons are well documented. People can be in serious risk of injury, or in some cases death, when tasers are used. Figures show that more than 270 people have died after being shot by a taser in the US and Canada since 2001. Recent examples of the use of tasers have been the killing of a distressed Polish man at Vancouver airport and the ejection of an audience member from a political meting in Florida.
These incidents, which were captured on camera, provoked widespread condemnation. However, such incidents have not given pause for thought to the PSNI. Of course they assure the public that tasers won’t be used as they are in north America; that only a small number of officers will carry them; and that they will only be used as a last resort. These are the familiar arguments that accompany the introduction of any new piece of weaponry by the police. Experience shows however that over time the use of the weapon becomes routine and is often the first response. Just look at the example of CS spray.
The danger of tasers has been the main focus of the commentary over their introduction. But what is of greater significance is that they have been introduced in defiance of the Policing Board. The body, which is supposed to hold the police to account, voted 11 to five in favour of a motion calling for no deployment until an impact assessment was completed. In addition, the Equality Commission, the Human Rights Commission and the Police Ombudsman all cautioned against the introduction of tasers. Therefore, all the institutions created by Good Friday Agreement, which are supposed to act as guarantors of accountability and human rights, were ignored. In the face of the determination of police to acquire a new weapon their protestations counted for nothing. Moreover, the ultimate guarantors of the whole peace process, the Irish government and (most importantly) the British government, did nothing to intervene.
This episode while relatively minor does illuminate a broader truth about the nature of the political settlement. Despite the claims for devolution and power sharing, real power still remains with the British state. Nationalists may sit on the Policing Board but they cannot hold the police to account; they be in government but can’t make a decision without the approval of unionists. These two elements come together in the proposal to devolve justice and policing powers to the Assembly. This was part of the deal between Sinn Fein and the British to pave the way for the restoration of power sharing, but because the DUP are opposed it will not happen.
Sinn Fein are reduced to making muted protests. They cannot make it an issue of contention as that would reveal their own bankruptcy and risk bringing the whole edifice of the settlement crashing down. Determined to hold onto their ministerial positions they are forced to swallow whatever humiliations and disappointments the British and the unionists serve up.