"Patten's Plan for the RUC looks Flawed" - The Times, August 27th, 1999

In a new era of peace and co-operation there will naturally be changes in the RUC, but leaks from the Patten report suggest alterations which go well beyond what is necessary for either effective policing or for securing greater participation from the Catholic community. It is important that the Catholic representation in the RUC rises, but methods for achieving this must avoid demoralising the police and must not risk undermining Protestant support for the Belfast Agreement.

Proposed changes in the name of the RUC repudiate and insult what is currently one of the world’s most professional police forces. Many people in Great Britain may say, “what is in a name?” but regard for the RUC name is, for many in Northern Ireland, is on a par with the importance accorded by many in Britain to the name of the BBC, the British Army or the Royal Air Force.

Indeed, the emotional charge is greater because, together with the British Army, the RUC has, in the eyes of many Ulster people, been their main defence against the lawlessness of paramilitaries, both republican and loyalist. For over 30 years civilised life has been possible in most areas through the sacrifices of the police and Army. Over this period 302 officers lost their lives. Thousands more were injured. Some have recovered but many have suffered permanent physical and psychological injuries.

All across the Province former officers live out their lives without sight or without limbs. While they and relatives of the dead have received some financial compensation for their losses and injuries, an important part of the wider compensation is the knowledge that their sacrifices were made in the highest of causes, the defence of democracy, and that society at large fully recognises the value of what they did.

It is this sense of value which is under attack by Patten if the leaks are to be believed. Society does not change the name of institutions which it approves of. Names get changed as a matter of shame. This is in no sense the case with the RUC, whose professionalism leads its officers to be in much demand as advisers in many parts of the world, including Kosovo.

It is not just Unionists who take this view. The House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, with its Labour majority, concluded last year that “there is no clear reason to make a special case of the RUC by changing its name”.

The majority of Unionists, including myself, believe that policing in Northern Ireland must be fully acceptable to all sections of the community including nationalists. At present there are too few Catholics in the RUC. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most obvious are the direct threats and wider social pressure exerted by Sinn Fein and the IRA for political reasons. Even so, the RUC is by no means exclusively Protestant, and to suggest that it is diminishes the bravery and commitment of the 968 Catholic members of the full-time RUC and the Reserve.

Despite the attempts of Sinn Fein to suggest that few Catholics are willing to join the RUC in its present form, the figures prove otherwise. During the IRA and loyalist ceasefires of 1994-96 the proportion of Catholics among applicants to the RUC rose to 22 per cent.

This figure would be even higher if the Catholic church and politicians supported those Catholics who wish to join, but the figure shows that many Catholics approve of the RUC sufficiently to wish to join it in its existing form.

In a survey undertaken last year for the Northern Ireland Policy Authority, two-thirds of Catholic respondents said that the performance of the RUC was good or fairly good. Only 15 per cent of Catholics thought that performance was poor or very poor.

I find it difficult to believe that a review chaired by someone with Chris Patten’s experience would recommend what appears to be the establishment of a second police force controlled by local authorities, but any attempt to move in this direction could pave the way for terrorists to be involved in law-enforcement operations. If local police committees were to reflect local political strengths, as the leak suggests, this could lead to committees dominated by Sinn Fein supporters or activists in some parts of Northern Ireland.

Since the Government regards Sinn Fein as inextricably linked to the IRA, an organisation which the Chief Constable regards as responsible for last month’s murder of a 22 year-old taxi driver, Charles Bennett, the totally unacceptable possibility arises of paramilitaries taking over control of parts of the Province’s policing.

One national newspaper yesterday regarded as benign the prospect of “ex-Provos policing the Falls, with old loyalists watching the Shankill”. This is a prospect which would turn the promise of the Belfast Agreement into a nightmare for the people of West Belfast. It must not be allowed to happen.

The killings and violence in recent weeks have shown that paramilitary activity has not ceased and a real danger is that current terrorists as well as ex-terrorists may infiltrate the police. Although examples of local policing may work in Great Britain, at the level of park rangers, the situation in Northern Ireland is utterly different.

Paramilitary organisations are already heavily involved in coercion within some parts of Northern Ireland and must not be allowed to extend their hold. Many good and sensible points may be contained in the Patten report, but they will be lost in controversy if fatal errors are made.

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