FEMALE police officers are to be issued with firearms for the first time in the Northern Ireland troubles, Sir Hugh Annesley, the Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, said yesterday. They are to be on the streets by next April.
The force has traditionally been reluctant to arm its women members, but some years ago it lost a landmark anti-discrimination case. For the first time from October, a small number of armed women will be on duty in Northern Ireland. These will be largely restricted to driving duties, rather than foot patrols, but the RUC move appears to mean a much expanded role for the force's women.
Just over 10 per cent of the RUC's 13,000 officers are women. Six policewomen have been killed in the troubles, most of them in circumstances which suggest that terrorist groups such as the IRA have not specifically targeted them for attack.
The move follows the trend in British police forces. There are women members of the permanently armed diplomatic protection group and airport security units; and Scotland Yard's specialist firearms branch has had a drive to recruit more women.
The RUC said the decision was part of its programme to ensure equality of opportunity within the force, adding that it had been taken after full consultation with senior operational commanders and staff associations.
Women police already receive instruction in handling firearms and making them safe, but more training is now to be given in their use. Male officers already carry handguns, rifles and sub-machine guns.
The move was welcomed by Sam Beattie, chairman of the Northern Ireland Police Federation, and by the Northern Ireland Equal Opportunities Commission. Joan Smyth, its chief executive, said: 'The decision about arming policewomen in the context of Northern Ireland was always going to be a difficult one and the Chief Constable should be commended on giving priority to his obligations under the sex discrimination legislation.'
A baby girl and her parents narrowly escaped death yesterday when a loyalist booby-trap bomb exploded under their car as they drove into Belfast. The device sprayed shrapnel at the parents, a Catholic couple both aged 33. The 20-month-old girl, in a baby seat behind the driver, escaped unscathed but suffered from shock.
Sir Hugh Annesley is said to have voiced serious misgivings about the Sheehy Report into the future of policing, and has hinted he might resign if they were implemented, it emerged last night.
Sir Hugh's fears are contained in an internal report leaked to the BBC, which said on its Nine O'Clock News programme last night that the RUC chief was said to have grave reservations about fixed-term appointments, performance-related pay, sick leave, and pension arrangements.
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