REFORMING THE RUC: Can Patten at last bring change to an immovable force?

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The Independent Online
AS YESTERDAY'S comments by some Unionist MPs demonstrated, the Patten report on policing will be received in some quarters not in thoughtful contemplation but with an attempt to create a political firestorm.

Many Unionists, and many members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary itself, dispute the need for any such report. The mindset of some is that any changes are concessions to the IRA and that any reforms would constitute shameful sacrifices on the altar of political expediency. For the most part, however, there is a widespread feeling that the time is ripe for a new start in policing, to mirror the hope that the politicians may yet succeed in creating a new political order.

The sense is that the RUC is too big, too Protestant, too detached from the community and too militarised: that - as a force geared up to combating a high-level terrorist war - it is not, as it stands, a suitable police service for a more peaceful Northern Ireland.

Police in any society rarely win popularity contests, but recent official research gives an insight into the particular problems of the RUC. In a survey, most Catholics, and most working-class Protestants, described the police as ill- mannered, unprofessional, arrogant, disrespectful and untrustworthy. More than 70 per cent of Catholics described the force as Orange, Protestant, tough, bigoted, biased, bullying, aggressive, and "part of the problem". Less than 10 per cent of Catholics considered it open, honest, caring, easy to deal with, trustworthy, representative or fair. But the lowest score of all was for the word "honourable" - which no Catholic thought applicable.

There are endless arguments over whose fault this might be, but it is beyond dispute that the RUC has a serious acceptability problem right across the Catholic population, not just among republicans. Its relationship with Protestants is more complicated, but there are undoubted difficulties in a number of areas.

Some of the policing problems may be insoluble; some can be dealt with, though few will be achieved quickly. The Patten report presumably envisages what an ideal force would look like, then devotes its almost 200 recommendations to suggesting how the goal could be attained.

The next few days are more likely to be filled with political furore than measured debate on the merits of the proposals. Sinn Fein's insistent call has been for complete disbandment of the RUC and its replacement with a 3,000-strong unarmed body.

This, predictably enough, is not going to happen. Nor is there any suggestion that all RUC members should have to resign and reapply, or that the force is to be disarmed or to lose its plastic bullets, or that ex-paramilitaries should be co-opted into its ranks. None of this will please republicans.

Unionists, and most of the police themselves, will not be pleased by the proposal to change the name of the force, and many will not like the idea of measures designed to bring more Catholics into the ranks. As usual in a situation where one side is seen as having a privileged position, the loss of that advantage can be painful.

Looking beyond the predictable instant controversies lie the questions of whether the report has successfully sketched out a route to the ideal, and whether it has ensured that both sides can be kept on board for such a tricky journey.

Doing so will require the same approach as for last year's Good Friday Agreement. Catholics and nationalists must be convinced that the report itself, with the resolve of the Government, offers a realistic hope of ultimately providing a transformed force for a transformed society.

This means a body with many more Catholic members, a more neutral working environment and an ethos that is no longer - as the RUC itself admits - white, male and Protestant. It means a mixed and more open force with less emphasis on security and more on human rights.

At the same time, the force needs to shed many of its current members - a sensitive manoeuvre which will presumably be carried out gradually and with generous compensation arrangements. The difficult part will be to manage this while preserving the force's best officers and traditions, and without simply alienating the Protestants rather than the Catholics.

The Patten report, with its plans for a cross-community police service, was supposed to be unveiled to a Northern Ireland governed by a new cross- community administration. The fact that the peace process got stuck months ago, and that the document is arriving in the middle of continuing bickering, will increase the initial difficulties, both for the report itself and for the overall process.

The Rev Ian Paisley was already crying sell-out yesterday and arguing that the RUC was being "offered as a final sacrificial lamb to appease the Roman Catholic republican murderers and their nationalist fellow-travellers".

In Britain it is easy enough to dismiss this as slightly comical bogeyman stuff, but among Northern Ireland Protestants it can be highly potent rhetoric. Mr Paisley topped the poll in the last European election, and has often, in the past, succeeded in persuading Unionists that reforms are meant not for the betterment of Northern Ireland as a whole, but as concessions to republicanism.

At the moment there are distinct signs that Protestant support for the Good Friday Agreement may be seeping away, and that the initiative is with that section of Unionism which traditionally believes in digging in its heels and opposing change.

Viewed from this perspective, the Patten report will be seen not as an honest attempt to provide a blueprint for progress but as yet another effort to do down the Unionist cause. The initial political battle may therefore be between those Unionists who believe a better way is possible, both in politics and in policing, and those who want nothing to do with any such initiative.