Ulster: RUC wins George Cross, but what does it mean?

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THE AWARD of the George Cross to the RUC was greeted by the police and their supporters as a singular honour, and by their detractors as insensitive and inappropriate. In both camps it triggered a debate on the deeper meaning of the gesture.

Northern Ireland Protestants and in particular, many police officers, retain much more reverence and respect for the monarchy than do many people on the mainland. There was therefore a huge swelling of pride after the honour was announced.

Many, led by Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan, were resistant to the argument that the move might have sprung not from the Queen's deep gratitude to the force but rather from base political motivation.

There is no doubt morale in the ranks will be improved by the gesture, with many officers and their families genuinely regarding it as a richly- deserved recognition of the force's performance and its sacrifices.

But sources within nationalism and Unionism, drenched as they are in characteristic Belfast suspicion, were inclined to dig deeper for ulterior motives. The Rev Ian Paisley last night warned a rally that the move could be "simply the prelude to the implementation of the Patten report's guillotine of the whole force".

In this view of the world, the conferring of the George Cross was merely a piece of Mandelsonian manipulation, ostensibly designed to honour, but, in reality, meant to soften up the RUC for the axe.

This view comes partly from the usual surfeit of cynicism and partly from the timing. The Government is anxious to do all it can to bolster the Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who on Saturday has the tricky task of asking the Ulster Unionist Council to endorse his scheme to enter government with Sinn Fein before IRA arms de-commissioning.

Mr Trimble's party and Mr Paisley's have been to the fore in opposing the report by the European Commissioner Chris Patten, which two months ago set out a blueprint for transforming the RUC into a smaller and more civilian force with a larger Catholic component.

Mr Paisley's speech came at the last in a series of anti-Patten rallies in which he has tried to drum up opposition to the proposed changes. Unionist parties and the police are campaigning for the dropping of the Patten plan for the force to get a new name.

The proposal has generated wide opposition, but it has been low on the Northern Ireland Richter scale of protest. This is partly because the jobs of serving regular officers have been guaranteed, and generous voluntary redundancy terms are on offer.

Mr Trimble has taken a quieter approach, setting up a committee to draw up alternative proposals and lobbying at Westminster. The Government had favoured his party with the honours system, with two peerages and a knighthood going to three close associates of Mr Trimble.

Conspiracy theorists thus allege that the George Cross honour and its timing have been designed to strengthen Mr Trimble's hand on Saturday, and to soothe the bruised feelings of police whose force is about to be radically reformed.

There have been rumours of Government concessions to Unionists in terms of watering down the Patten report, though speculation has centred on the possibility that the RUC might not be renamed. The Government's precise reaction to Patten has yet to be unveiled.

On the nationalist side there had been worries that the Government might not change the RUC's name and there will be continuing pressure on this. Most nationalists criticised the George Cross honour, but they reckon it to be relatively unimportant, so long as the name-change they seek goes ahead.