The RUC must see this report as an opportunity, not a defeat

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LET ME first admit to a certain bias. I know Chris Patten well. For three years in Hong Kong I watched his every political move, interviewed him on countless occasions and developed a healthy respect for his skills as a politician. More importantly I knew him as a man with courage and integrity and - critically in the matter of Northern Ireland - a man who was fair. If the Chinese didn't like him it was because they would have preferred a supine Governor, a man who placed diplomatic convenience above conviction. That has never been Patten's style. He reminded me of the lines from Graham Greene's The Quiet American: "No man ever had better motives for all the trouble he caused."

Greene's words came to mind again as I listened to the growing furore surrounding the Patten report on the RUC. Betrayal and Insult, shout the Unionists. Not enough, mutter the republicans. But Mr Patten's motives are above questioning. I spoke with him about the Troubles often enough in Hong Kong to understand that he cared deeply about Ulster and understood its political dynamics. When he was appointed to head the commission into the future of the RUC I welcomed the move. Whatever his conclusions, he was bound to attract criticism; that is the nature of the place. Objective assessment is - to put it mildly - an underdeveloped concept in Northern Ireland. For politicians - Unionist or republican - to accept that Chris Patten or anybody else is capable of dispassionate examination of the facts is nigh on impossible. They are bound to regard him with suspicion. The fact that his report arrives in the middle of the most serious crisis faced by the peace process doesn't help. These are not times when politicians are inclined to embrace change. Had there been a functioning executive with Sinn Fein and the Unionists serving together, the Patten report might stand some chance of being given intelligent consideration. Now it will be used as a political football.

Much of the furore surrounds issues that might strike the dispassionate observer as relatively unimportant. The name, the badge, the flying of the flag at police stations. But in Ulster the substance is in the symbolism; that is something both sides have understood for generations. Take away the "Royal", and you dilute the union; remove the Crown from the crest and take away the flag, and you do the same thing. To a people who have already heard a British Prime Minister declare that London had no "selfish or strategic interest" in holding on to Ulster, all of this sounds like one more step down the road to Dublin. Throw in a recommendation that officers from the Gardai should be seconded to the RUC and you have - to many Unionist eyes - a sell-out to the great nationalist plot.

And many nationalists will regard the Patten report as a victory for their side. Forget Sinn Fein's grumbles - they have always known that their demand for full-scale disbandment of the RUC was a non-starter. What Mr Patten has offered instead is incremental change - but change that will dramatically alter the shape and future of the force.

But is Chris Patten right to recommend such sweeping changes? The simple answer must be yes. In a sense the reaction of the Ulster Unionists to the proposals makes Mr Patten's argument. It is clear they view the RUC as their force, the police force of Protestant Ulster, the defender of an old political order. And on the nationalist side there has long been a deeply held conviction that the men in dark green are the truncheon- bearers of the majority. That is where we are, and that is why the commission was established in the first place.

A simple fact: Northern Ireland is a divided society; it has a police force that is overwhelmingly composed of one section of the community. This doesn't mean that all Catholics hate the RUC or that all Protestants support it. Far from it. And there would undoubtedly be more Catholic members of the force had it not been for the IRA's brutal and cynical targeting of Catholic policemen.

Nor would I suggest that a majority of policemen in Ulster don't do a difficult job with courage and dedication. I have gone to RUC funerals, interviewed the widows of murdered policemen, spoken to a great many officers. I stood (gratefully) behind the police lines when loyalist mobs hurled rocks and steel spikes in Portadown and joined the RUC on night- time patrols in dangerous areas. This is a force that has suffered more than any other in Europe and to which a great many people feel a debt of gratitude. But to deny that there is a problem of acceptance and credibility among nationalists is wilful blindness.

History is part of the problem; the genesis of the force was as a Protestant police for a Protestant state back in 1922. Down the decades little has changed to alter the perception of either side in Ulster as to whose side the RUC is really on. You can argue till the cows come home about whether this is right or wrong. I suggest we forget the arguments and accept the reality. Mr Patten is also trying to lay the groundwork for a fundamental shift in the RUC's core purpose: the transition from a militarised style of policing to the policing of peace.

And this is where Sinn Fein and the IRA come in. We have been given ample evidence of the IRA's method of policing - a jackboot style that would do credit to the torturers of Pinochet's Chile. If we are to have normal policing then the brutality of the IRA's punishment and death squads (and those of the loyalist paramilitaries) must end now. All it takes is the word from the Army council. For republicans to criticise the RUC and demand its disbandment is hypocritical while the masked bullies of the Provos enforce their law with sledgehammers and pistols. The same is true of decommissioning. If you believe in peace and the normalisation of society, then start giving up your guns.

It is now up to Tony Blair and Mo Mowlam to decide how much of Mr Patten's report will be implemented and when. It will be hard for them to avoid implementing most of what he advocates. The temptation will be to delay reform until the peace process works itself out. But there is a danger in delaying doing the right thing until the right circumstances present themselves. If the Government believed the problems surrounding the RUC were serious enough to warrant this investigation, then it cannot delay setting things right.

As for the RUC itself, this is a painful moment. But if the senior command and the officers on the street can stand back, they will recognise an opportunity and not a defeat. Certainly the plans to reduce the levels of the force will cause concern - but this was always going to happen if peace arrived. The changes to name and badge, and the plans to increase the number of Catholics will make a difference on the streets of west Belfast and other nationalist communities. And feeling the support of the entire community is something all police officers should welcome.