Why is Northern Ireland's police force working with Israel?

A Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) riot police officer looks out from behind his face shield 30 June, 2001 in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
5 min read
05 July, 2021
In-depth: The PSNI, Northern Ireland's police service, is partnering with Israeli security institutions to develop tools for crime prediction and prevention, law enforcement research, and personal surveillance.

On 21 May, Belfast-based journalism outlet The Detail published an article outlining past and present collaboration between the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Israeli Ministry of Public Security.

The article was published on the same day that a ceasefire was declared after the most recent escalation between Israel and Palestine, during which Israeli airstrikes killed 256 people in Gaza and injured roughly 2,000.

The PSNI is currently working with the Israeli Ministry of Public Security on four projects under the EU's Horizon 2020 programme. The programme, established by the EU's "Innovation Union", seeks to increase Europe's global competitiveness in the fields of science and technology, creating jobs and stimulating economic growth.

"The PSNI, formerly known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), is the product of years of social inequality and brutal sectarian conflict"

The programme provides funding to thousands of projects, hundreds of which are security projects focused on crime prevention and counterterrorism.

Two projects involving the PSNI are being undertaken with Motorola Solutions, a company that supplies surveillance technology to Israeli settlements, settlements that the British government itself has acknowledged are illegal.

The projects, known as CREST and CONNEXIONS, aim to assist crime prediction and prevention by collecting and analysing data from social media, surveillance technology, and internet traffic.

The 'Peace Line' fence that stretches between the Catholic and Protestant areas of West Belfast, Northern Ireland. [Getty]
The 'Peace Line' fence that stretches between the Catholic and Protestant areas of West Belfast, Northern Ireland. [Getty]

Motorola Solutions already provides "virtual fences" for illegal settlements on Palestinian territory, maintaining radar stations and camera systems to detect intruders.

The company also provides the Israeli military with encrypted smartphones, which allow for the rapid transmission of surveillance footage or regime-compliant imagery from troops on the ground.

Another project being undertaken by both parties is ILEAnet, which aims to bridge the gap between research and practice within law enforcement organisations.

Finally, both services are also involved in Project Roxanne, which seeks to develop surveillance and investigation software to more accurately track and arrest targets.

The system, field-tested in September 2020, allows law enforcement to intuitively trawl through large amounts of personal information to find incriminating conversations or data.

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An Garda Síochána, the police force of the Republic of Ireland, is also involved in project Roxanne, drawing criticism from Ireland's lead opposition party Sinn Fein, who have raised concerns over increased detentions and torture as a result of the project.

The reaction in Ireland

The topic of PSNI involvement was also raised in Stormont, the parliamentary assembly of Northern Ireland. 

People before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll raised concerns over human rights abuses and asked the Minister for Justice Naomi Long whether she would "commit to pressing the PSNI to withdraw from the programme for reasons based on the daily denial of justice for Palestinian people?" 

Minister Long, a member of the non-sectarian Alliance Party, stated that the matter was "for the Chief Constable and the Policing Board to take that forward," adding that she voted to recognise Palestine when she was in parliament.

Palestinians overlook the rubble of the Israeli-destroyed al-Shorooq Tower in Gaza City, on 27 June, 2021.
Palestinians overlook the rubble of the Israeli-destroyed al-Shorooq Tower in Gaza City, on 27 June 2021. [Getty]

The PSNI has also completed a number of prior projects with the Ministry of Public Security, centred around countering and disarming improvised explosive devices. One of the projects was undertaken alongside Israel's Technion University, notable for the development of the D-9 unmanned bulldozer, which has been used to clear explosives and demolish Palestinian homes.

Though this collaboration has raised concern in Ireland, both north and south of the border, this is not the only time the PSNI has worked with authoritarian state security forces. 

From December 2020 to February 2021, the PSNI provided training to the Royal Oman Police (ROP). This training partnership was funded by the Commonwealth and came only months before protests erupted in Oman over unemployment, prompting a severe police crackdown.

"The PSNI is currently working with the Israeli Ministry of Public Security on four projects under the EU's Horizon 2020 programme"

The training provided focused on how to quell civil unrest, a skill increasingly more in demand in the repressive Gulf state, where youth unemployment is estimated to be in the region of 49%.

While the PSNI have insisted their work in Oman, where insulting the ruler is a jailable offence, is "human rights-centred", this sentiment is seemingly not shared by their ROP counterparts, who arrested activists, social media commentators, and protesters under the cover of a state-imposed media blackout.

Police action in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland topped terrorism charts in Europe for the final quarter of the 20th century and remains a hotbed of political division and unrest. The PSNI, formerly known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), is the product of years of social inequality and brutal sectarian conflict.

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The RUC was a controversial police force, its membership being drawn almost entirely from the Protestant side of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. Its tactics and organisation were reminiscent of police forces in Israel or apartheid South Africa, protecting the hegemony of the ruling group through harsh military-style policing. 

The PSNI, conceived during Northern Ireland's peace process, was an effort at creating a police force that represented, and by extension won the confidence, of both sides of the community.

While there's no doubt the PSNI has a wealth of state security expertise to draw on, perhaps its greatest contribution to stability in its own state has been its ability to bridge the gap between divided communities.

Its Catholic membership stands at around 32%, up from 7% at the start of the millennium, though stigma and suspicion are still significant roadblocks in the recruitment of Catholic officers.

"The PSNI may be jeopardising its reputation by comparing notes with an apartheid state on high-tech surveillance"

In the 2017/18 Northern Ireland Crime Survey, 68% of respondents reported confidence in the PSNI, a number that has been steadily rising since the force's inception in the early 2000s.

While these figures indicate the force is delivering on its stated aim of "creating real participation between the police and the community," it is not yet out of the shadow of the RUC and must still earn its reputation as an unbiased, cross-community police force.

To this end, the PSNI may be jeopardising its reputation by comparing notes with an apartheid state on high-tech surveillance.

Facing a new and uncertain decade, Northern Ireland's police force will be required to cultivate public trust to maintain its tightrope walk across the region's sectarian divide, and being seen as an accessory to sectarian policing abroad has the potential to shake confidence in that balance.

Adam Doyle is an artist and researcher based in the Republic of Ireland specialising in Irish and Northern Irish politics.

Follow him on Instagram: @spicebag.exe