Nervous Ulster waits for Patten

Peace Process review: Report on future of policing in the province could sour delicate negotiations
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The Independent Online
THE MITCHELL review of the Good Friday Agreement is due to be interrupted on Thursday when the Patten report on the future of policing in Northern Ireland will be published, amid predictable controversy.

The report is expected to contain proposals for far- reaching changes to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Since policing is such a sensitive issue, the politicians are bound to be engaged in intense public debate over its findings.

Acknowledging this, Senator George Mitchell has bowed to the inevitable and will end this week's round of meetings on Wednesday. He is expected to return to Northern Ireland next week to resume his activities.

Although Sinn Fein has made the most radical demand, calling for the RUC's complete disbandment, it is Unionist politicians who have been far more jittery about the report's possible contents. Rumours have been flying that the report might pave the way for such things as Sinn Fein control over new localised police forces.

Given that neither this nor disbandment are actually on the cards, the Sinn Fein response is likely to be that the report is woefully inadequate. On past experience, a keenly disappointed reaction from the republicans may make the report more palatable to Unionists.

The key reaction on the nationalist side will come from the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Although the SDLP has often criticised the RUC, it has on occasion praised aspects of its performance, and has approached policing with a more open mind than has been evident from Sinn Fein.

On the Unionist side things are less predictable. The Ulster Unionist Party has a reputation for lax discipline, with a tendency for some of its leading members to rush to the microphone with sometimes contradictory statements. One problem is that the party is perennially in competition with the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists to present itself as the most effective bulwark against criticisms of the force. It will be a big surprise if Mr Paisley's response is anything other than a cry of sell- out.

The RUC itself contains many supporters of both the Ulster Unionists and the Democratic Unionists. If the Patten report produces an angry response in its ranks, this may produce a hardening in the position of the UUP in particular.

When the Patten commission was set up, as part of last year's Good Friday Agreement, it was assumed that, by the time it reported, a new cross- community administration would be in place. Instead, the slow pace of the peace process means it will drop into the middle of the review. This carries the danger that any turbulence it generates might damage both the fate of the report and the peace process as a whole.