There are few TV shows that light up social media quite like Line of Duty. At the core of the action is Northern Irish police officer Ted Hastings, played by Adrian Dunbar, a celebrated film and television actor from Enniskillen in County Fermanagh.
Hastings isn’t the only copper hailing from Northern Ireland on our screens in recent years.
Before the return of Line of Duty, Bloodlands filled its coveted Sunday 9pm slot on BBC One. A crime drama set in Northern Ireland, the ghosts of the Troubles hang over Jimmy Nesbitt’s DCI Tom Brannick as he attempts to solve a case that eluded him during the peace proceedings. Before that, one of the most talked-about television crime dramas was The Fall. Starring Gillian Anderson, Met officer Stella Gibson is sent to fix a bungled investigation in Belfast.
From Peaky Blinders to Luther, the figure of the Northern Irish police officer has become a mainstay of popular TV on both sides of the Irish Sea. The continued interest in Northern Irish officers in popular culture suggests that there is an intriguing tension in this figure for audiences: one that not only makes great TV but also helps viewers understand Northern Ireland’s complicated history and how it has shaped the present.
Policing between Britain and Ireland
The signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 led to the reforming and renaming of the Royal Ulster Constabulary as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). This was created as a new “police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole”. This meant a drive to hire more Catholic officers so the force could be “representative of the society it polices”.
Despite the new force, the police are still hugely controversial in Northern Ireland. Policing has been a sticking point at several key moments in the ongoing peace process.
The nationalist community, who align themselves with an Irish identity and often Catholicism, distrust the force due to the discrimination Catholic recruits faced during the Troubles. There are also emerging details of collusion in the murders of Catholic civilians during the Troubles.
The unionist community, who are traditionally more supportive of the PSNI, mostly protestant and support Northern Ireland being part of the UK, have also disagreed with police tactics. In March 2021, First Minister Arlene Foster called on the chief of police to resign after it was announced that there would be no prosecutions following the funeral of republican Bobby Storey, which was allowed to go ahead despite COVID restrictions. Foster described a crisis of confidence in policing over the incident.
While there has been a sustained decrease in levels of violence since 1998, sporadic outbreaks are still a feature of life. We have seen this in recent days after eight consecutive nights of rioting in the capital Belfast, the worst spate of violence in years.
Such tensions have provided fertile material for writers of film and literature and it is perhaps this that lies behind the uptick of cultural representation of the various experiences of policing in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. At a time when the situation is so fractious, fictional portrayals of Northern Irish officers allow these issues to be explored and offer nuance behind the headlines.
In The Fall, Chief Constable Burns says: “Policing is political here”. This is also clear in Bloodlands, where having paramilitary connections seem to influence procedure and the various tactics the police use “to keep the peace”.
Many of the officers on screen have a “past” in the conflict – in some cases, it drives the narrative (Bloodlands); in others, it adds backstory to a plot focused on current events (The Fall).
For those watching in England, Scotland and Wales, a Northern Irish police officer is an ambiguous figure. They are, ostensibly, a British citizen upholding the law, but their complex backstory, marked by their familial or professional experiences of the conflict, makes them distinct. They are at once an insider and an outsider.
An Irish policeman abroad
Line of Duty examines the complexities not only for Catholic police officers but also the generations of people who left Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles through Ted Hastings.
Hastings (“the epitome of an old battle,” as he says himself) was the product of a mixed marriage, with a Protestant father and Catholic mother. He trained in Northern Ireland becoming one of a few Catholic officers in the early days of the PSNI, transferring to England due to the escalating sectarian violence and anti-Catholic harassment in the force.
Years of watching corruption and being the target of harassment made him well placed to weed it out as head of Anti-corruption unit 12 (AC-12). Ted’s motivations can be summarised by his continued admission: “We’re only interested in one thing here and one thing only, and that’s catching bent coppers.” Knowing that he has been shaped by a background where he witnessed devastating cover-ups, allows us a deeper understanding of his single-minded determination to root out corruption.
While his complicated past is an asset in his line of work, it’s also a hindrance. Despite moving across the Irish Sea, he can’t fully extricate himself from all that happened in Northern Ireland. Darker episodes of his time on the PSNI have been used against him, to discredit or implicate him in other crimes, in attempts by criminals to evade being caught by Hastings and his crack team at AC-12.
Against this potent, controversial context, Superintendent Ted Hastings is almost universally admired. Much of this admiration is down to Dunbar, who added several Northern Irish dialect phrases – “Ted-isms” such as the much-loved “now we’re sucking diesel” – to the script that elevated him to cult status.
While other characters are more often literally in the “line of duty”, Ted’s presence is centred around the station and his exasperation with the political manoeuvrings at HQ. He acts as the heart around which the plot turns, with reliable outrage at “bent coppers” and a commitment to “the letter of the law”.
One can see why, at present, a police officer devoted to anti-corruption would be attractive to audiences. As this season draws to its conclusion and we fear for the future of Ted and AC-12, the presence of the Northern Irish police officer on screen allows audiences to better understand what is happening in Northern Ireland and humanise the complex debates around the future of policing in Britain.