Nothing is worth keeping if it means maiming and misery

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The Independent Online
The dangers lying ahead for Northern Ireland following the Patten Commission Report on the future of the Royal Ulster Constabulary will be the rocks of politics and politicking, not the recommendations themselves which deserve careful and serious consideration before any judgments are made.

The signs are already there that the contents of the report may well be used and misused by politicians for their own purposes to achieve the quick fix. The ability to achieve change could be damaged by expediency and the need to preserve reputations of the moment. Politicians of all hues and on all sides must not be allowed to hijack the report to feed their own ends.

It should be apparent to all politicians, including the unionists, that the RUC cannot stay as it is. It is no longer enough to say that change is impossible. But the challenge now is to see how change can be made to work. This can be done only with the support of the community. For some time the RUC has been keen on introducing local committees, the start of community policing. There will, however, be a degree of sensitivity in certain areas in setting up the 26 local police boards proposed by Patten. They must be made up of a balance of people representing the true community, not those who support Sinn Fein/IRA or Protestant paramilitaries.

But we also need to retain experienced police officers if the changes are to be well planned and implemented. At present there is the ability within the police force, politicians and the community at large to bring about the changes successfully. I am concerned, therefore, by apparent proposals to use what can only be described as bribery to encourage long-serving police officers to leave because they are Protestants; one ranking officer has worked out he would be paid as much as pounds 300,000 to go.

As the Patten Commission says, one of the most important tasks is to create a representative balance of the whole community within the police force. While there have been much higher representations in the past, it seems that only 8 per cent of the current force are Roman Catholic. Some of these are the sons and daughters of Roman Catholics who spent their working lives in the RUC.

We have been down this road before but with limited success over the past 30 years of violence. When I was responsible for recruitment, strenuous efforts were made to attract Roman Catholics. I remember recruiting two young men who met all the entry requirements. Their families were visited in their homes by the IRA and told that they would be killed and their homes destroyed if their sons went ahead. In a number of other cases the families of potential recruits have been threatened. Where young men have persisted in their determination to sign up, their parents have deemed it necessary to tell neighbours that their sons have gone to England to work. During a period when the Chief Constable was a Roman Catholic, he was several times targeted to be killed by the IRA who were prevented only by written intelligence reports.

All this must become the past. The politicians must show that they are serious about finding a solution and looking to the future. Young men and women from all communities and especially from Roman Catholic areas are more likely to volunteer when terrorism is defeated. There will be a good number of courageous young men and women who will accept the challenge to contribute to the building of the future. But there can be no room for former paramilitaries or terrorists of either side who have viciously threatened and bullied and murdered the very people they are now asked to serve.

There are 175 recommendations in the Patten report. All the recommendations and likely outcomes must be looked at with a new eye. Each of the proposals has to be carefully structured for implementation so that pitfalls are avoided. The bigots - who have no interest in positive change for the whole community - have to be removed from the process.

Throughout this undoubtedly long and sometimes painful business, there must be a degree of public maturity and a commitment to honesty by those who purport to represent the people. They must be determined to make the process work; be able to tackle the needs of the country; be able to decide what sort of police service we both need and want. These are the decisions that must be made by the elected people on all sides. Men and women throughout Northern Ireland must have courage and foresight, dispensing with their old ideas, prejudice and perceptions.

The police themselves need much enhanced training and other facilities that will meet the very broad changes proposed. The present training college is neither large enough nor suitably equipped to provide the services that will be required. The training needs of all levels must be met from raw recruit to senior officers, to include retraining and constant reinforcement. The expertise of Northern Ireland officers can also be enhanced through developing existing links not only with the Garda in the Irish Republic but with all the forces on the mainland.

The stakes are high and concessions have to be made. For many people, the loss of the title Royal Ulster Constabulary and its badge is a matter of great sadness and regret, indeed emotion. The badge, with its harp, shamrock and crown, is, after all, a symbol for all the people of Northern Ireland. We all use services with the prefix "royal", such as the Royal Mail, the Royal Victoria Hospital, and a considerable number of recreational and social organisations.

The proposed change of name of the force to the Northern Ireland Police Service (NIPS) is most unfortunate and already the subject of sick humour and cynicism. If a change of name becomes inevitable, I would prefer the title of Northern Ireland Constabulary. As to the badge, I would like to keep that, but not at any price. It cannot be worth keeping if it leads to death, maiming, misery and mayhem.

Sir John Hermon is a former chief constable of the RUC.