Earlier this month the Sinn Féin vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, posed for a photograph beside a new mural in West Belfast depicting the police murder of George Floyd. ‘Whether it is in Ireland or the US,’ O’Neill said, ‘an injustice to one is an injustice to all.’

The connection between the two countries is more complex and contradictory than O’Neill’s comment implied. Irish republicans have long relied on a network of supporters in the Irish-American diaspora, many of whom were deeply unsympathetic to the victims of racism. In the 1840s, Daniel O’Connell urged Irish emigrants to support the abolitionist cause. But he met with a hostile response from such prominent figures as the Irish-born Archbishop of New York, John Hughes. For O’Connell, it was ‘afflicting and heart-rending … to think that so many of the Irish in America should be so degenerated as to be among the worst enemies of the people of colour.’

In modern times, the American civil rights movement inspired protests in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. Bernadette Devlin, the Irish civil rights leader and MP, went on a speaking tour of the US to drum up support. She drew explicit parallels between the two struggles, but her appeals often fell on stony ground. ‘I cannot understand,’ she told an audience in Detroit, ‘the mental conflict of some of our Irish-Americans who will fight forever for the struggle for justice in Ireland, and who yet play the role of the oppressor and will not stand shoulder to shoulder with their fellow Black Americans.’

Sinn Féin has generally been far more circumspect than Devlin in its dealings with Irish America. One of the party’s leading allies is the New York congressman Peter King, who once claimed that Eric Garner only died because of his obesity. In the late 1990s, King helped produce a report condemning the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland. The Unionist politician Sammy Wilson responded by urging King and his colleagues to address the ‘scandalous record of their own police forces before arrogantly demanding changes to the RUC’.

Wilson was clearly engaged in deflection tactics, but it was still a canny line to take, and Sinn Féin’s opponents could have scored a few points in recent weeks by recalling the party’s friendship with King. Instead, the Unionist Newsletter published a strange article ‘remembering the black lives murdered by Irish republican terrorists’. Nobody believes that the ten Black men killed by the IRA (eight soldiers, two civilians) were targeted because of their skin colour, so the polemic sailed wide of the mark – especially since it came with an editorial condemning BLM protests altogether.

Still, there may be fruitful parallels to draw between Northern Ireland and the US when it comes to the question of police reform or disbandment. In the late 1990s, Catholics made up roughly 40 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland, but fewer than 10 per cent of RUC members. The rubber bullets that US police officers have been firing so freely were initially designed for use by the British security forces in Northern Ireland, where they killed 17 people. RUC patrols carried weapons, wore flak jackets and drove around in armour-plated vehicles, foreshadowing the militarisation of US policing.

There’s one obvious difference: while American police departments like to talk as if they’re fighting a war on the streets, the RUC actually was engaged in a conflict with a heavily armed guerrilla force. The IRA killed 190 RUC officers during the Troubles, and another 83 members of its reserve. Adjusted for population, that would be the equivalent of more than 50,000 US police officers shot or blown up since the mid-1990s by African-American insurgents.

According to the Washington Post, US police officers killed 328 unarmed people between 2015 and 2019. The RUC killed a total of 29 civilians – 26 Catholics and three Protestants – during the Troubles, which would be the equivalent of more than 5000 deaths in the US over 25 years. (For its part, the British Army killed 160 civilians – more than half of all the deaths for which its soldiers were responsible.)

There is also evidence of widespread collusion between the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries who killed more than a thousand people – 29 per cent of all deaths during the conflict – the vast majority of them Catholic civilians. Much of that evidence has come to light since the conflict ended, but collusion was already a matter of fierce controversy when the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. In addition, as far as Irish nationalists were concerned, the name and symbols of the RUC associated the force with British nationalism.

The policing issue was so troublesome, it was effectively postponed until after the peace talks of 1997-98 had concluded. A commission headed by the Conservative politician Chris Patten drew up a report on police reform that was published in 1999. It fell a long way short of Sinn Féin’s call for the RUC to be disbanded altogether, but still infuriated Unionists, including David Trimble. Patten called for the RUC to be renamed and reconstituted as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, with an active policy to recruit more Catholic officers. By 2011 they accounted for 30 per cent of PSNI members.

The Northern Ireland secretary Peter Mandelson brought in a Police Act in 2000 that watered down some of Patten’s recommendations: an oath to uphold human rights would only be sworn by new recruits, rather than all officers, and the Policing Board’s oversight powers were more circumscribed than Patten had envisaged. In 2001, a plurality of Catholics (44 per cent) believed that reform had not gone far enough, while 59 per cent of Protestants felt it had already gone too far.

Of the two main nationalist parties, the SDLP decided to join the Policing Board in 2001, while Sinn Féin held out for the full implementation of the Patten Report. There was a certain irony in the IRA’s erstwhile political wing insisting that the recommendations of a senior Conservative politician be followed to the letter – a good measure of how far Sinn Féin had already travelled. A second Police Act in 2003 beefed up some of the reforms, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Sinn Féin gave its support to the PSNI, as part of the powersharing deal with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party.

So-called ‘legacy issues’ are still political dynamite: there has never been a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, merely ad hoc inquiries into particular allegations of collusion. In 2011, the PSNI had to admit that important RUC records from Gough Barracks in Armagh had been destroyed within weeks of the Good Friday Agreement being signed. The PSNI set up its own Historical Inquiries Team to look into unsolved cases from the Troubles. The Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers claimed in 2011 that there was a disproportionate focus on wrongdoing by the RUC and other state forces, but the vast majority of reopened historical cases involved republican paramilitaries (1038 of 1615, compared with 32 that involved the British Army).

Two decades after the Patten Report, policing remains contentious in Northern Ireland. Last year, the Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald, clashed publicly with the PSNI chief, George Hamilton, after calling for his successor to be appointed from outside the force. Catholic recruitment has slowed down and is now in danger of contracting. But the reforms of the early 2000s have certainly lowered the political temperature.

The region may not offer an easily transferable model for the United States, but it does suggest one important lesson: in order to win majority support from nationalists for its reforms, the British government had to overrule a well-organised bloc committed to defending the status quo, including the police force itself. It’s easy to imagine the kind of reaction that Patten-style reforms – let alone anything stronger – would evoke from police departments in the US, but until someone is prepared to face down that backlash, there will be more victims like Eric Garner, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks.