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Great Britain: Northern Irish Police Resent Proposed Reforms

  • Ben Partridge

In a society that is trying to heal ethnic or religious divisions -- such as Kosovo or Northern Ireland -- the composition of the police is of both symbolic and practical importance. As international advisers begin to train a new police force in Kosovo, some lessons can be taken from the reform of the police in Northern Ireland. RFE/RL correspondent Ben Partridge reports on new proposals to make the police more representative of those they serve.

London, 10 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A new report says the police in Northern Ireland, the most heavily armed in Europe, must accept sweeping reforms if the province is to achieve peace.

The report was drawn up by an independent panel of experts that focused on police reform as part of a drive to bring a political settlement to Northern Ireland.

The British-ruled province has been torn apart by decades of sectarian violence between the Protestant majority and Catholic minority. More than 3,000 people have been killed since 1969.

The new report focuses on the future role of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), a 13,000-strong police force that has been on the front line of the terrorist bombings and shootings. The RUC, set up in 1922 to police the remaining British territory in partitioned Ireland, has long been the focus of controversy. The Catholic minority accuses the RUC of being a paramilitary organization dedicated to Protestant ascendancy, and opposed to Catholic Republicans' ambitions of securing a united Ireland.

But Protestant Unionists -- who support the union with Britain -- regard the RUC as a dedicated force that has bravely shed much blood in the fight against the mainly Catholic Irish Republican Army (IRA). The IRA, a terrorist organization, has sought to end British rule through violence.

The new report was drawn up by a panel headed by Chris Patten, Britain's last governor of Hong Kong. The Patten team produced almost 200 recommendations aimed at making the police more representative of local communities, and more democratically accountable. Patten says:

"We believe it is possible to find a policing solution to the policing problem, but only if you take the politics out of policing."

The main recommendation is that Catholics and Protestants should be recruited on an equal basis in future. That would increase the amount of Catholics in the force to 30 percent within 10 years.

At present, the RUC is more than 90 percent Protestant. Its many Catholic critics have accused it of being a harsh enforcer of Protestant domination in their communities. (One of the most common slogans in Catholic neighborhoods is "Disband the RUC.") A recent opinion poll showed that 70 percent of Catholics regard the police force as Protestant, partisan, bigoted, biased -- and, as they put it -- part of Northern Ireland's political problem.

The report calls for the present police authority to be replaced with more Catholic representation. Provided the peace process does not collapse, the numbers of RUC officers would be halved.

The report also recommends the appointment of an international commissioner to oversee the reforms over the next five years. It says the RUC should get rid of its name and its crown and harp symbols, and fly a new flag over its police stations. Currently, the RUC flies the Union Flag, which Catholics regard as a symbol of Unionism, the political movement that wants to keep the province British.

Protestant politicians have dismissed the report angrily as what they call a betrayal of the RUC traditions of bravery and gallantry, and of the more than 300 RUC officers killed by terrorists.

David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists is one of the architects of the Northern Ireland peace process. He accused Patten of reaching his conclusions without full consultations.

"I think the Patten report is the most shoddy piece of work I have seen. It makes recommendations without any discussion whatsoever. The issue of the badge, the flag, all of the rest of it -- dismissed, like that!"

The Labor government of Prime Minister Tony Blair says the recommendations will be put up for discussion over the next two months. Many may be implemented by the year's end.

Commentators say a reform of the police system will be hard to achieve without a wider political settlement. Right now, the peace process remains stalled. Protestant Unionists say they will not move until the IRA lays down its weapons, as required by the Good Friday peace agreement. But republicans say they will not disarm because they do not trust the Protestant-dominated police to protect them.

Patten commented yesterday that police reform was the most "difficult and grueling job" of his career.