Leading Article: No way to police Ulster

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The Independent Online
IF THE Metropolitan Police has a problem with institutional racism, the situation inside the Royal Ulster Constabulary must be worse - but with religion standing in for race. The former, almost exclusively white, polices the population of London which is at least 20 per cent non-white. The latter force is almost exclusively Protestant, yet Northern Ireland is at least a third Catholic. It took the shock of the Macpherson inquiry into the bungled Stephen Lawrence murder investigation to get the Met to begin to see itself as others saw it. As a result, it realised that it is not enough to promise evenhandedness and avoid overt racism. Every assumption behind traditional policing had to be looked at afresh. What, you might wonder, can bring about the same process in Ulster?

The events of recent days have made it clear that this insight has not been assimilated in Northern Ireland. It is clear that neither the RUC nor the political leadership on the Unionist side has yet thought through the profound implications for the police of the changes that Northern Ireland society must undergo if conflict is to be eliminated. The Unionist/RUC assumption still seems to be that this is "our" society, and that "they" - the Catholics - are welcome to live in it, but on "our" terms. That is precisely how the Met used to think about blacks and Asians.

Of all the ideas that Chris Patten is said to be proposing, nothing will stick in the Unionist gullet as much as attempts to accommodate the paramilitaries into policing arrangements, albeit without recognising them as such. Each local community would be able to contract out street-level security in certain areas. There are already hard-line Republican parts of Belfast where the IRA claims to be the only effective police presence. In such places the RUC is not regarded as the defender of law and order but as the representative of an historic enemy.

The exile of four youths from Northern Ireland - on pain of being shot in the head if they did not leave before midnight last night - was just the latest in a grim catalogue of messages by which the IRA reminds us that they, in Gerry Adams's chilling words, "haven't gone away". The Northern Ireland Human Rights Bureau reports that the IRA has been behind five murders, 61 shootings, 152 beatings and 400 expulsions since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Mo Mowlam has chosen to regard all this as insufficient to deem the IRA ceasefire over - conveying the message that the IRA has a licence to continue to beat, maim and terrify. The only merit in the course she took was that the alternative - formally declaring the ceasefire to be over - was likely to prove far worse.

But the operation of unofficial and unsupervised paramilitary police is utterly objectionable in a civilised society. They were part of the horrific formula for mayhem and massacre in Kosovo. The real test of the Patten proposals will be whether all areas of Northern Ireland can enjoy the benefits of proper professional policing. And in Northern Ireland as much as in London (or Kosovo), that requires the consent and confidence of all those policed. It is a lesson that we seem some way from learning.