Why inflict pointless wounds on Ulster's Protestants?

Edwards RUC officers face a future in which people they know to be terrorists become their colleagues
THEY WON'T admit it, of course, but Sinn Fein are hugging themselves over the Patten report. Once again, by employing a combination of intimidation, propaganda and ruthless, brilliant negotiating techniques, they have persuaded well-meaning liberals to do their dirty work for them in the name of peace and reconciliation. They will look grave in the hope of extracting more concessions from a Secretary of State whom they believe to be a push-over, but they are grinning in private.

With the best of motives, Chris Patten and his colleagues have produced recommendations that not only pointlessly wound the Ulster Protestant community and further demoralise the Royal Ulster Constabulary, but also give loyalist and republican paramilitaries every hope that they can infiltrate and corrupt the police force they hate.

At his press conference yesterday, Patten kept referring to the need to provide a police force that was acceptable to the whole community - and it is this ludicrous aspiration that is at the heart of the report's deficiencies. In Britain, society does not aspire to have a police force that is acceptable to anarchists, Yardies and Triads. So why should the RUC be made acceptable to the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and all the other fascists who hate the forces of law and order?

The average, decent Ulster policeman has been bitterly hurt over the last few years by the manner in which the force of which he is proud has been successfully demonised at home and abroad by Sinn Fein. He hears it dismissed as sectarian by republican spokesmen, yet he knows that the overwhelming reason why only 8 per cent of police are Catholic is because of republican murder and intimidation. A Catholic joining the RUC was seen by republicans as a traitor, was in more danger of being murdered than were his Protestant colleagues, usually had to leave the community in which he was brought up, and could meet his parents and siblings only away from the family home. Protestant policemen marvel at the sheer courage of their Catholic colleagues.

These policemen look on with incredulity as interviewers listen respectfully to known IRA leaders pontificating about human rights violations by the police. They cannot understand a topsy-turvy world in which they, who have suffered 302 deaths (equivalent to 250 annually on the mainland) and almost 9,000 injuries, come under criticism from those who did most of the killing and maiming. They see little recognition that for 30 years the RUC has stopped Northern Ireland from descending into anarchy and, through its vigilance and intelligence work, has stopped innumerable republican and loyalist bullets and bombs from hitting targets on the British mainland and in the Republic of Ireland.

It is the sense that their courage and suffering have been ignored and their tormentors rewarded that has made the recommendations for name-change and new insignia so particularly painful. They know from personal experience what surveys have shown - that the vast majority of nationalists are uninterested in such changes, and therefore that they are being recommended to please republicans.

"I have walked behind dozens of coffins draped in the union flag and bearing a cap and badge," said one police reservist to me yesterday. "They were good enough for us to die under. Now they are being removed as if they were badges of shame. As if we didn't deserve them." "My son has that name on his headstone," said Pearl Graham, whose son John was murdered by the IRA only two years ago. "Who wants to change it? Terrorists?"

"We're told the peace process is all about parity of esteem," said a serving policeman. "Surely that is exactly what our badge - with its crown, harp and shamrock - is all about. Is Chris Patten telling us that no symbol of our state can be tolerated, because Martin McGuinness disapproves?'

But if it is symbols that are at present causing the most anguish, it is the proposals for recruitment and accountability that are truly terrifying to those who care about civil society. More than any other section of the community, the vulnerable RUC long for peace, and they are happy with modernising reforms, encouragement of Catholic recruits and so on. But the Patten report has the potential to legitimise paramilitary policing.

Patten has reacted angrily to suggestions that he is calling for a Balkanisation of the police, yet that is exactly the thrust of the recommendations about part-time police reserves. "We see a great advantage in a part-time reserve locally recruited from every neighbourhood in Northern Ireland... enhancing the connection between the police and the community".

They must already be rubbing their hands gleefully in, for instance, South Armagh, where the IRA rules OK and will be perfectly placed to decide on suitable recruits. RUC officers know that if this recommendation goes through, they face a future in which people they know to be terrorists will become their colleagues.

While Patten says categorically that convicted terrorists cannot join the police, there are hundreds of them out there who have never been charged. "There must be no predisposition to exclude candidates from republican backgrounds," says Patten. So since recruitment is likely to be handed over to civilians, the force will be unable to keep out those whom they know to be enemies of the state.

There are awful perils, too, in the proposals for district policing "partnership boards". The IRA would have no trouble making their influence felt in west Belfast, and we can await with interest the struggle in east Belfast between those representing the hoods of the UVF and the UDA. Oh yes, and all this will be overseen by a Police Board with two frontpeople for the IRA, yet to give up a bullet or an ounce of Semtex and still murdering and mutilating its own people with virtual impunity.

Patten was supposed to report for a Northern Ireland at peace, run by a power-sharing executive. As things stand, there can be no excuse for implementing any of the controversial recommendations. Unless, that is, the British and Irish governments really intend to hand parts of the province over to republican and loyalist fascists. The British taxpayer already pays the dole of these "volunteers". Is he now to give them a uniform and a salary?

The author's latest book is `The Faithful Tribe' (HarperCollins)