The new front line

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The Independent Culture
The battle for peace in Northern Ireland is no longer being fought on the streets, but within a police force that must confront its troubled past. One man has been charged with the task of modernising the RUC. If he fails, he may fan the flames of conflict.

There are two Royal Ulster Constabularies. The first is the force that describes itself as "quite simply the bulwark between anarchy and order," which has for nearly three decades been in the front line of the battle against the IRA. With its officers daily risking their lives, it has paid a heavy price in the war against terrorism: 300 of its men and women have died violently, with no fewer than 8,000 injured. Many, horribly, have been killed while off-duty, in the presence of their families.

Other forces such as the FBI regard the RUC as one of the most professional police operations in the world, but it also faces a charge sheet drawn up by republicans, nationalists and human rights groups. Efficiency, say the critics, is no substitute for community acceptability, a police force's most valuable asset; and the force's undoubted sacrifices, they argue, do not exonerate it from blame for its own alleged wrong-doings.

The longevity of Irish memory means that the critics can reel off a list of alleged offences: the "shoot-to-kill" era, the Stalker affair, the Castlereagh interrogation controversy, the use of plastic bullets, the perception that officialdom conspires to cover up its misdeeds: the list is almost endless.

Critics and defenders can, and do, argue the toss about these ad infinitum, but one unarguable reality is the makeup of the force: it is 92 per cent Protestant, and some of those other eight per cent are Catholics from England. The reasons for the imbalance are hotly debated, but its existence is unquestionable. Its internal ethos is also problematical.

It is beyond question that the RUC has a credibility problem with the nationalist population. For some years its image gradually improved, but then came Drumcree 1996 with its television images of RUC officers in Robocop-style outfits forcing aside local Catholics to allow Orange marchers down Portadown's Garvaghy Road.

It looked like a repeat and an update, in vivid colour, of the grainy old 1969 pictures of burly RUC men bashing Catholic civil rights marchers in Londonderry. Those original images helped to ignite the troubles; the new ones meant the hard-won levels of nationalist acceptability vanished overnight.

Nationalist confidence in the police plummeted, official surveys finding that two-thirds of Catholics believed the RUC treated Protestants better than Catholics. Eighty-two per cent of Catholics wanted the force reformed, replaced or disbanded.

The man chosen to usher in a new era of policing in Northern Ireland is former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten. As head of a commission set up under the Good Friday agreement, his task is to provide Northern Ireland with what it has always lacked, a police service supported by all sides. The one-nation Tory is being asked to reconcile Ireland's two nations.

The task is certain to provide as many pitfalls and difficult moments as his oriental exploits. Getting it right will help to make a historic new start in Ireland: getting it wrong could sow seeds that might condemn future generations to renewed conflict.

The old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times", seems to have fallen on Patten during the Seventies, and is still in force. Back then he was spoken of as a future leader of the Conservative Party, but the fates were not kind, conjuring up as they did Margaret Thatcher.

His moisture content being too high for her, he was consigned to the same desert as other wets, and for a long stretch confined to minor office. What in other decades might have been an inexorable ascent towards the highest offices instead became a slow and comparatively undemanding journey through the Northern Ireland Office, overseas development and so on.

Even promotion to the Environment Ministry brought with it a fresh curse - the poll tax. Mrs Thatcher was unsurprised when Patten was one of those who advised her that she had to go, dismissing him as she did as "a man of the Left". The end of the Thatcher years seemed to promise a new era for Patten, but his part in the 1992 Major election victory was accompanied by the personally catastrophic loss of his own seat.

After his time at the Northern Ireland Office, Patten will already be aware of the complexities of the brief. It is evident that the essence of his task lies not in the technicalities of policing but its role at the heart of Northern Ireland's problems. The RUC, for all its sacrifices, for all the things it has done right, is seen as one-sided in its composition and, at defining moments, in its actions.

It is the same problem that has dogged Northern Ireland itself, and which this government is now addressing through the peace process. On the agenda is not just a new form of policing, but a new Northern Ireland.

Policing reform is embedded in the Good Friday agreement. So, too, are reviews of security arrangements, emergency legislation and the overall criminal justice system including the prosecution process and the appointment of judges; and so are the questions of prisoner release and arms de-commissioning.

Add to this new administrative arrangements, which will probably put Sinn Fein into government as well as creating new north-south links, and the scope of the envisaged change becomes clear. This is the creation of a whole new political order.

This is presumably why the Government believes Patten's political background and Far Eastern experience fits the bill. He has brainpower, experience of adversity and, perhaps most of all, he comes from the now slightly old-fashioned tradition of classic Tory gradual reformers.

His closest associate on the new commission is likely to be his friend Dr Maurice Hayes, a former civil servant with whom he worked in Belfast. In his memoirs Hayes describes Patten as "probably the best minister I ever worked with, with a Rolls-Royce mind and great political astuteness". Both are Catholic; both are on the board of this newspaper. At a press conference last week, Patten made clear that no members of the commission would be commenting on their work.

Patten's time at the NIO means he returns to Belfast with some baggage. Last time round some Unionists took exception to his Catholicism, while some of them were enraged when he allowed the second-largest city council to change its name from Londonderry to Derry.

The fact that a Unionist politician threw a tricolour at him in protest against the name-change will serve as a reminder of the potency of symbol. While most in the RUC accept it is destined to shrink, the force is deeply devoted to its symbols, treasuring the Union flag and other emblems and cherishing the "Royal" in its title. Any attempt to change that name will meet fierce opposition.

Size is important, but the issue of how big the police force should be immediately reopens political questions. The RUC has 8,500 regular officers, 4,300 reservists and 2,700 civilian support staff. It seems obvious enough that the numbers can be reduced by running down the reserve and relying on natural wastage.

But finding the optimum level will take fine judgement. Everyone hopes for peace, but there is no guarantee that the IRA and loyalist ceasefires will be permanent; and even if they are, there are maverick minor groupings out there, on both sides.

Then there is public order. A new Northern Ireland may be in the making but a resolution of the old marching disputes has yet to be found. A senior police figure said of Drumcree 96: "We were on the brink of all-out civil war. We kid ourselves that we live in a democracy - we have the potential in this community to have a Bosnia-style situation."

That is a sobering reminder that Northern Ireland is not totally stable. Both communities are at the beginning of the process of working out how to co-exist. There will have to be enough police in reserve to deal with sudden eruptions of disorder.

Once the question of the size of the police force has been resolved, its composition comes into focus. The trick here will be to reduce its overall strength while bringing in a sizeable number of nationalists to make it a more representative force.

But getting nationalists in appears inevitably to mean getting Protestants out. For a new force of, say, 6,000 officers to be representative, 2,000 or so should be nationalists. A quick sum shows this would mean displacing 4,400 of the present regular RUC, as well as all the reservists. The dangers of this are enough to give the most ardent reformer pause, for the last thing anybody wants is large numbers of disgruntled RUC men thrown on the streets.

Then there is RUC ethos. One expert has described its culture as "stubbornly male, Protestant, British, Unionist and laddish". Thirty per cent of Catholics in its ranks say they have experienced religious discrimination or harassment, while half its female members say they have suffered sexual harassment. It sounds as though the new force will need a new ethos.

The Government, in choosing Patten to examine all of this and in giving him very wide terms of reference, appears to be signalling that it believes widespread change is essential. A police force that is heavily Protestant, heavily armoured, highly technological and largely geared to fighting an anti-terrorist war will be out of place in a more peaceful Northern Ireland.

In turning to Patten, the Government seems to want a blueprint for gradual but far-reaching reform, for a plan that will be innovative without being disruptive. Not for the first time, New Labour is finding merit in Old Tory values.