Lessons from Northern Ireland: Policing, Polarization, and Moving Forward

August 10, 2020

The murder of George Floyd by a White police officer prompted a national conversation in the United States about policing and the racism embedded in law-enforcement institutions. The country can learn from abroad when it comes to police reform, in particular from the experience of Northern Ireland.

During the “Troubles,” Northern Ireland had a highly militarized police force operating in a context of widespread violence and relatively easy access to weapons. Since the Good Friday Agreement, it implemented a series of effective reforms that dramatically raised community trust in the police. These included renaming and rebranding the force, aggressive affirmative action, creating a representative police oversight board, and an emphasis on community policing. However, the reforms did not heal deep-seated sectarian divisions, which still contribute to fears of renewed violence.

U.S. policymakers should note the challenges faced by Northern Ireland and remember that rebuilding trust between communities and the police cannot be the responsibility of the latter alone. To create a peaceful, functional society, underlying racial and political divisions also need to be addressed.