Patten Report: Blueprint of a police force for all

ALTHOUGH THE Patten Commission did not recommend the scrapping of the Royal Ulster Constabulary it produced a blueprint that, if accepted and implemented, will in a decade change the RUC virtually beyond recognition.

ALTHOUGH THE Patten Commission did not recommend the scrapping of the Royal Ulster Constabulary it produced a blueprint that, if accepted and implemented, will in a decade change the RUC virtually beyond recognition.

If it all goes through, a visitor to Belfast in the year 2010 should find a Northern Ireland Police Service that is much smaller, is one-third Catholic, and has been demilitarised by shedding its Land Rovers, flak jackets, machine-guns and interrogation centres.

Its members will look much more civilian, and indeed many jobs once carried out by police will instead be done by civilians. Its guiding principles will be community relations and human rights rather than protection of the state. Its Protestant and Catholic members will work amicably side by side in a strictly neutral environment, the Union flag no longer fluttering above the stations.

Its leading officers will work in close contact with politicians at all levels, from local councils and the Belfast assembly to a special Policing Board. Its superintendents will work with Sinn Fein representatives. Perhaps the Chief Constable will be called Siobhan O'Hara.

To some this is a utopian vision, to others a nightmare, but if both the Patten report and the Good Friday Agreement are enacted then that little scenario becomes a practical possibility. Chris Patten has been careful to ward off charges that he is naive or quixotic by stressing that much depends on a continuing fall in violence, but most now believe that will happen.

The report maps out how Northern Ireland might get from here to the new policing of 2010. Many people are grateful to the RUC for having stood in the front line of the Troubles: some regard them as unqualified heroes, others view the force as brave but flawed. But even the least critical has to recognise that the RUC has paid a high price, not just in terms of its 300 dead and its thousands of injuries, but in the fact that it has become detached from society - Protestant as well as nationalist.

In many ways it has been required to function more as an army than a conventional police force, operating from fortresses and patrolling in heavily armed formation. The drop in violence and the possibility of greater political stability means it is now realistic to think of how to reintegrate it back into society.

Most RUC members never remember working in anything near normality: it has always been a force under fire whose men and women are required to carry guns and to check under their cars for Semtex booby-traps.

The Patten Report comes across as far more than a catalogue of 175 recommendations.It envisages the best conceivable model for a demilitarised RUC and then works backwards. The report is all about human rights, civilianisation and community policing. Its theme is how to transform a closed force, which is defensive not just physically but psychologically as well, into an open and transparent organisation.

There are a number of routes laid out for bringing the RUC back into the community, and indeed for bringing it into those parts of the community where it never had a foothold. This primarily means reaching into Catholic circles, which is a process that is bound to change both policing and that community itself.

For a Catholic, joining the police was always a daring and dangerous thing to do. Some did not apply because of the risk of being killed by the IRA, while others were inhibited because the great pillars of Catholicism and nationalism - churches, political parties and so on - explicitly or discreetly discouraged them.

Yesterday's positive initial reaction to the report from the Irish government and the SDLP suggests that it may not be long before a historic change comes about, with Catholics being urged to join the new Northern Ireland Police Service.

Developments such as the Patten Report are often presented as concessions to republicanism and nationalism, and Sinn Fein in particular is cunning enough to keep its powder dry and let the Unionists make the early running. But the fact that Unionists are protesting loudly may mask the fact that this is a decisive moment for nationalists north and south: this is not a gain for Sinn Fein to pocket, but a huge challenge to republicans.

If and when nationalist leaders do call for Catholics to join the police, Sinn Fein will be left isolated and in the illogical position of supporting a new political dispensation while with- holding support from the new service that will underpin it.

The sound and the fury was yesterday much more on the Unionist side, where a confused and problematical attitude towards policing can sometimes have the most tragic results. The first policeman to die in Northern Ireland, almost exactly 30 years ago, was shot dead not by the IRA but in a riot on the Shankill Road, as loyalists protested against a previous attempt to civilianise the RUC.

The last policeman to die, just a year ago, was killed by a blast bomb flung by loyalists during a protest against a ban on them marching in Portadown. David Trimble, who yesterday staunchly defended the RUC, offended many officers a few years ago when he strode along police lines wagging his finger at policemen preventing a Drumcree Orange march.

Some Unionists will find fault with the Patten details, in particular with the name-change proposals; some are against the whole exercise, regarding the present RUC as the best possible force; some will now seek to use the policing debate in the political talks that begin next week.

The collision of the Patten review and the Mitchell review of the Good Friday Agreement will be unhelpful to both. Yet each aims to demonstrate that new beginnings can be made, and that Northern Ireland can be transformed from an arena of endless confrontation into one based on agreement.

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