Prejudice, policing and the future of Ulster

In the run-up to Friday's referendum on the peace deal, Unionist bodies are concerned that the RUC will be weakened just as paramilitaries are released on the streets, writes Kim Sengupta
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FEAR of the future is corrosive. But it is this fear that is driving thousands into the "No" camp in the coming referendum. And one of the greatest fears centres on the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Proposed reform of the RUC will, a significant number of Unionists feel, succeed in weakening it fatally just as paramilitary prisoners are being released. And, despite repeated assurances to the contrary, the belief on the streets in loyalist areas is that some of these bombers and gunmen will be replacing sacked officers in a new-look force.

The RUC has, in many ways, come to symbolise the deep rifts in Ulster's divided society. To republican activists it is the mailed fist of the state used to preserve the status quo. To Unionists it is a vital protection against sedition and terrorism. The force itself claims to be one of the most accountable in Europe and as impartial as possible while operating for long stretches in what is in effect a civil war.

Chris Patten, chairman of the proposed independent commission which will consider reform of the RUC, will not have an easy job. The Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, has already said the setting up of the commission was designed for a political purpose.

And he has warned against the undermining of the force's operational independence. Unionists are vociferous in their defence of the police. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, cites allegations of human-rights abuses and sectarianism, and wants the RUC to be disbanded and reconstituted with "a minimum of 40 per cent nationalists."

Republicans also want to drop the "Royal" prefix and stop the flying of the Union flag from stations, claiming it is provocative. The Chief Constable is against a name change but has said he will examine the flag question.

Significantly, on the day of the announcement of the Patten inquiry, the flag was lowered to halfmast over Andersonstown Barracks in nationalist West Belfast.

If peace does break out, the size of the RUC is expected to be reduced dramatically, with as many as 10,000 of its total strength of around 14,000 laid off to bring it into line with the rest of police forces in the UK. The prospect fills loyalists with unease.

What both the police and the mainstream parties agree on is the need to have more Catholic officers. At present they make up just 8 per cent of the total, compared to 11 per cent in 1969 and 21 per cent in 1923.

The RUC says it is attempting to redress the balance.

Its recruitment posters says it "particularly welcomes applications from the Catholic community".

In the past two years Catholics made up 20 per cent of applicants, and 20 per cent of those recruited.

Other statistics are not nearly so encouraging. Over the past 30 years 299 RUC officers have been murdered by terrorists and thousands more injured. Through the 1970s and 1980s, 10 to 15 officers were killed each year.

Add to this the fact that Catholic RUC officers are particularly vulnerable to attacks from republican paramilitaries and that some have also complained about prejudice and harassment from a small number of Protestant colleagues, and the picture looks anything but promising.

The hard edge of policing Ulster, and how different it is to the rest of the UK, can be seen in South Armagh. Here, despite the ceasefire, many roads are considered too dangerous and police and military personnel fly to Crossmaglen by helicopter from Bessbrook. One police officer is accompanied by up to a dozen soldiers, and the delivery of a summons on a routine crime matter has to be done in body-armour and with armed back-up. Not so long ago there were firefights between the IRA on the ground and helicopter gunships.

Police and army vehicles were hit by bazookas and rocket-propelled grenades.

Even now, Bessbrook is said to be the busiest heliport in Western Europe. In the steel-reinforced police station, nicknamed Fort Apache, the perimeter wall bears a gaping hole punched through in a mortar attack.

Chief Inspector Edward Graham and Sergeant Jimmy Bingham are talking about policing Bandit Country, the state of the paramilitary arsenal and the hopes for peace.

Sgt Bingham, based at Crossmaglen, said: "I know it's the might of the British Army which has kept me alive. But I joined up to be a police officer and not a soldier. I'd love to be able to do the job like a colleague in, for example, Yorkshire. We all hope that day will come."

At Musgrove Street police station, in Belfast, a unit is preparing to go out to do a spot of community policing. This being Northern Ireland, they are putting on flak-jackets and checking their Heckler & Koch sub- machineguns.

But even this is a step forward: the officers who will be going into the staunchly nationalist Market area no longer need to be accompanied by the Army. Increasingly, local people bring their complaints to the police and a rapport is being built with individual officers.

In streets emblazoned with republican murals, there is banter between young boys and girls and the patrol. A female officer, Caroline Reid, is the particular favourite of the children.

But the appearance of normality is deceptive. There, hobbling along one of the roads of the estate, Friendly Street, is a teenager who had a leg blown away by a shotgun. It was a "punishment" shooting for stealing from a car.

A local woman says she deplores what happened to the boy: "It's ridiculous to say we want people who do things like that in a new police force. Unionists say they don't want paramilitaries in the police force and then the politicians whip them up by saying we, the Roman Catholics, do. That's simply not true."