Ulster policing group members named

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THE Government yesterday announced the membership of the new commission on Northern Ireland's future policing, following a delay to allow last- minute negotiations with Dublin.

The Irish government is believed to have had misgivings about the originally proposed make-up of the body, which is to review policing requirements and structures.

The policing issue is alive with political sensitivities, given that the views of local parties range from the Sinn Fein demand for the RUC's disbandment to the highly protective attitudes of Unionist groupings towards the force.

The assumption is that, if the ceasefires of the major paramilitary groups hold, the size of the force will be considerably reduced. At the moment it consists of 8,500 regular members, 3,000 full-time reservists and 1,400 part-time reservists.

The commission's chairman Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, is to be joined by a mixture of local and international members.

These include Sir John Smith, formerly of the Metropolitan Police; the former Northern Ireland Ombudsman, Dr Maurice Hayes; Ms Lucy Woods, who is the local head of British Telecom; and the leading Belfast QC Peter Smith. In addition, there will be two policing experts from the US and a third from Canada.

Set up under the Good Friday agreement, the commission is to report by next summer. It will examine the RUC's composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols.

The announcement was welcomed in Dublin by the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and in Belfast by the Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis, who said: "Practically we couldn't have hoped for anything better." He urged RUC officers not to be defensive in their dealings with the commission.

Nationalists and republicans yesterday turned down an invitation to discuss the future of policing with the Northern Ireland Police Authority whose chairman, Pat Armstrong, said: "The policing debate has suffered too long from negativity with sterile and polarised arguments. We need more enlightened discussion." The nationalist groupings made clear they intended to deal instead with the commission, describing the Authority as irrelevant.

In its annual report, the Authority recommended leaving much of the RUC's established identity intact, including its name, uniform and emblem. It added, however, that it would be pressing for legislation compelling RUC officers to declare membership of groups such as the Freemasons and the Orange Order.

On the issue of plastic bullets, it said it had concluded with some reluctance that there was no effective substitute for the weapons in large-scale disturbances.