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Ceasefire heralds public debate on RUC's future

With a public debate developing on future policing in the wake of last year's paramilitary ceasefires, the Northern Ireland Police Authority yesterday announced "an extensive community consultation project."

The authority, which exercises oversight over the Royal Ulster Constabulary, has invited written submissions from groups and individuals on future policing needs and priorities. It intends to publish a report later in the year. Its chairman, a solicitor and former Alliance Party politician, David Cook, said: "The emphasis of our consultation is at community level. We want to know how people see the police and how they see them developing over the next 10 to 15 years."

The RUC's Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Annesley, recently called on the Government to set up a commission to make recommendations on future policing structures. He has rejected suggestions that the RUC should be divided into regional forces.

The Police Federation also favours a commission. Its spokesman, Sam Beattie, said yesterday: "The worst-case scenario would be that the RUC would end up as some sort of a political football. We're entitled to better than that."

Inevitably, however, the contentious subject of policing has become intertwined with the question of an overall political settlement in Northern Ireland. The policing debate now developing has already heard opinions ranging from those fiercely protectiveof the RUC to voices calling for its complete disbandment.

A permanent peace will clearly mean a new approach to policing, which for 25 years has been directed in large measure to coping with the republican and loyalist campaigns of violence. It will also mean a significant reduction in the size of the RUC, which has more than 12,000 officers.

There is no agreement on how the RUC should be structured - or indeed whether it should continue to exist. The Sinn Fein position, for example, is that the force is unacceptable and should be disbanded, although Sinn Fein spokesmen have spoken of interimarrangements in advance of a political settlement. More moderate nationalist opinion has suggested different structures, a different name and different uniforms.

Historically, the RUC has always had an acceptability problem with the nationalist community, much of which has tended to regard it as a force under either Unionist or British Government influence. In religious terms, its make-up is more than 90 per centProtestant. The force has been praised in many quarters for its increased professionalism over the years, but many controversies during the Troubles have left a residue of bitterness, especially among working-class nationalists.

Allegations of harassment, indifference to complaints and lack of accountability are commonplace and indicative of a widespread lack of trust. Within the force itself there are signs of financial anxiety. The cessation of violence has reduced the daily threat to officers' lives, but it has also hit their pay-packets as overtime has been dramatically reduced.

There is also insecurity over livelihoods if peace proves permanent, since it is assumed that many jobs will eventually disappear. The overall debate is set to continue between those who favour keeping changes as limited as possible and those who seek full-scale reforms.