Leading Article: The RUC must be transformed if Ulster is to progress

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IT WASN'T supposed to be like this. Chris Patten's report into the future of policing in Northern Ireland was meant to arrive after, not before, the Assembly established by the Good Friday Agreement had set up its cross-party executive. But the quarrel over when, if ever, decommissioning will start derailed that timetable, with perhaps fateful consequences. For one of the most important of the 175 recommendations in the Report is that the police in Northern Ireland should be responsible to a new board which would include members of the Assembly.

This could have been the capstone on the structures envisioned that spring morning last year at Stormont, but as it is, the cry of giving the representatives of armed terrorists, in the form of Sinn Fein, control of the police will make David Trimble's Unionists even more determined to see proof of the IRA's abandonment of violence before they enter into government with Republican politicians. But when the fuss dies down over the mostly sensible suggestions - ranging from painting the word "police" on the sides of Land-Rovers to setting up a college to train officers in human- rights policing - it may be seen that the Patten report offers new hope for Senator George Mitchell's review of the implementation of the Agreement.

From the Unionist perspective, there can be no question now that David Trimble will enter into an Executive with Sinn Fein before the IRA hands over some weapons and ceases doing its own policing of the neighbourhoods it controls. That very clarity, however, could give a strong argument to those within the Republican movement who see the need to move to wholly democratic means of pursuing their objectives. They might also argue to themselves that the chance to have some official input into policing in the province, and in what the Report calls local districts, is a carrot too tempting to ignore. And, no doubt, the people who live in those very neighbourhoods will welcome an opportunity to rid themselves of vigilante policing.

The recommendations in a section of the report headed "Culture, Ethos and Symbols" have caused the most excited reaction. Renaming the Royal Ulster Constabulary the "Northern Ireland Police Service", changing the cut, if not the colour, of the uniforms and devising a new badge free of national symbols may seem common sense to those of us who are policed by non-political forces focused mainly on chasing criminals and issuing tickets for motoring offences. But common sense is different in different places. In Northern Ireland, the police are seen more as the army is in the rest of the UK: a bulwark of national security and a focal point of patriotic pride.

It is this very sense of identity that the Good Friday Agreement seeks, so radically, to change. The police force is as good a place to start as any.