RUC contenders vie for poisoned chalice

A reformer, a traditionalist and an outsider are bidding to inherit force hit by loss of credibility
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The Independent Online
The new Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, who is to be appointed at the end of this week from a shortlist of three, will inherit a force which is facing a policing crisis.

The stand-off during the Drumcree Orange march last month has severely dented public confidence in the RUC, among Protestants and particularly among Catholics. The Northern Ireland Police Authority, which is to make the new appointment, has acknowledged that Drumcree "has seriously damaged the credibility of the force".

The new man will take over from Sir Hugh Annesley, the Dublin-born police officer who came to the RUC from the Metropolitan police and who has held the post for seven years.

The new appointee will face the formidable task of rebuilding the RUC's relations with both Catholics and with large sections of the Protestant community. Nationalist confidence in the force is at its lowest point for many years, while last month 150 officers left home, most temporarily, following intimidation problems with loyalists.

The three officers to be interviewed this week include the RUC's two deputy chief constables, Ronnie Flanagan and Blair Wallace, together with William Taylor, who is presently commissioner of the City of London police. The new man will take over when Sir Hugh retires in November.

Mr Flanagan is one of Ulster's best-known policemen, with a profile so high that in recent years it has virtually eclipsed that of Sir Hugh. Universally regarded as the best communicator the RUC has ever produced, he has developed into the force's foremost voice on radio and television.

He is also viewed as a most political policeman - not in the sense of holding strong opinions, but in moving easily and comfortably in political as well as media circles. He has won a number of public compliments from nationalist figures more accustomed to criticising the RUC than commending it.

Aged 46, his 26-year career in the RUC has included spells in charge of the Belfast area and Special Branch. A graduate, he is studying for a master's degree and has lectured at Bramshill police college. He was in charge of the fundamental review of policing requirements which was launched during the IRA ceasefire.

Until very recently he was hot favourite for the top post, but some believe the Drumcree Orange march crisis, in which he was closely involved, may have harmed his prospects.

Mr Flanagan's image as a thoroughly modern policeman is in contrast to the reputation of his local competitor, Blair Wallace, who with 41 years of RUC service, is viewed as an officer of the old school. Aged 59 and currently in charge of support services and administration, he has kept a much lower profile and is not nearly so well known to the general public.

One rumour has it that Mr Wallace might be given the post, then relinquish it in a few years in favour of Mr Flanagan. The choice is made by members of the Police Authority, a government-appointed quango, subject to the approval of Sir Patrick Mayhew, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

The outside candidate is William Taylor, who since 1994 has been commissioner of the City of London police. Although the force is small it has assumed a pivotal importance since London's financial district became the IRA's prime terrorist target in Britain.

He has thus worked in close liaison with the RUC and with MI5. Mr Taylor, who is 49, has also served in the Thames Valley and Metropolitan police.

Most nationalists would tend to favour Mr Flanagan for the post, on the grounds that he is likely to be more open to changes and reforms in the force. By contrast many Unionists would prefer Mr Wallace.

One candidate who was unexpectedly excluded was Ian Oliver, head of Grampian police, who is regarded as one of Britain's most intellectual police officers. Dr Oliver, who has protested to Sir Patrick, was apparently left off the shortlist because he has not completed a senior command course.