Church ministers to accompany police in Northern Ireland

By staff writers
August 6, 2007

In a move that may raise questions for those who believe, on secular and religious grounds, in a clear distinction between religion and the state, Christian ministers in Northern Ireland are accompanying police patrols in tough areas.

But those involved in the plan stress that its aim is to build trust and break down suspicion in communities, rather than to introduce an explicitly religious component into policing.

In the first ever scheme of its kind, police officers in County Tyrone to be accompanied on their beats by Catholic and Protestant clergy.

The idea came from the police themselves, in an attempt to overcome mutual suspicion rooted in the sectarian history of policing in the province.

Ministers are being asked to go with constables on Friday and Saturday nights on the streets of Strabane to see the risks and difficulties they encounter.

The project, called ‘Faith in Policing’, intends to nurture a growing relationship between clergy and the police to tackle community problems and issues.

Inspector Graham Dodds, who is behind the scheme, told the BBC last week that there is a lot of sectarian tension and alcohol-related crime in the area. “So we are hoping to make use of the existing good relations with the churches in Strabane.”

The move comes following the historic withdrawal of British troops from operation in Northern Ireland after 38 years, and the establishment of a democratic assembly headed by DUP chief Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness.

Dodds explained: “We can outline what the social consequences of incidents are and speak to the local parish priest or local minister to see what can be done through the pulpit or parish magazine.”

He added: “Since Christmas, there has been a dramatic drop in sectarian violence and I attribute that in part to that tremendous effort between the police and the churches. We would like to see clergy go out with officers on patrol in Strabane on Friday or Saturday nights to see the real social problems we face.

The police chief stresses that the plan is not intended to incorporate clergy into policing structures or to silence their capacity to act critically. "We are not asking them to be apologists - if they see us doing something wrong then I want them to please tell us and we can adapt the way we do things."

Inspector Dodds says that there has been a very positive response from churches in Strabane and that the police will be consulting their own authorities about the development of scheme.

“The main aim for this is getting crime figures down,” he stressed. “It’s a matter of what works for the interests of the community.”

Ministers will receive regular e-newsletters for distribution to congregations, while local clergy will be appointed as police chaplains to their local stations across the district on a voluntary basis.

It is not yet clear whether the scheme will be extended to representatives of other faith communities and non-religious civic groups. The downward trend in inter-Irish sectarianism has been accompanied by a growth of racism towards migrant and black people in some areas.

The British army officially ended its operations (what nationalists saw as occupation) in Northern Ireland at the end of July 2007. It once had 106 bases and 27,000 troops in the region. The remaining 5,000 soldiers are being re-assigned to overseas duties.

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