Optimism and cynicism rub shoulders at launch of Northern Ireland's revamped police service

The 44 police recruits stood to attention in unseasonably warm Belfast sunshine yesterday, bearing on their backs not just neat new uniforms but a formidable weight of history.

They carried, too, the hopes that a new beginning is really on the cards for policing in Northern Ireland. They are the first of the recruits to the new Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), replacing the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

An exchange of flags symbolised the fresh start at a graduation ceremony in east Belfast. The new service's standard was presented and dedicated at the ceremony, while the old RUC standard was handed over for safe keeping at a Belfast cathedral.

The group of 44 is split half-and-half in terms of Protestants and Catholics, since they represented the first tranche of more than 300 new officers – recruited on a 50-50 basis. The RUC was always a Protestant force: the idea is to build up the Catholic component in the PSNI as quickly as possible.

That is a sensitive issue, as are so many things about the new arrangements. For example, yesterday senior officers of the PSNI wore black armbands because of the death of the Queen Mother but the recruits did not. It was just one of a host of details that, though considered with great care, did not entirely manage to avoid controversy.

The main address was given by the former Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, who invited Garda Commissioner Pat Byrne to say a few words. Commissioner Byrne duly obliged, expressing to the recruits best wishes from "your sister service on this island".

The fact that he spoke was criticised by Unionist politicians who said it offended sensitivities, one claiming the occasion had been "hijacked" by the southern policeman.

In another unprecedented move, the ceremony was attended by an official representative of the Catholic church, auxiliary bishop Anthony Farquhar, together with a local parish priest. The church always treated the RUC with reserve but approves of the newly-launched service.

Nationalist politicians from the Social Democratic and Labour party were there, too, in their capacity as members of the new Policing Board that will oversee the work of the service.

But Sinn Fein was missing, because its members say they will boycott the board until much more far-reaching reforms are enacted. The party claims that new recruits may well be Catholics but are not actually nationalists.

The 44 recruits looked full of pride yesterday. The squad, whose members are aged between 18 and 36, includes 31 women. After more training, which will include firearms instruction, they will go on to the streets in August.

A foreign journalist was surprised by the military trappings. The recruits marched round a parade ground swinging their white-gloved hands, then stood stiffly to attention. Then – at ease – they were inspected by senior officers.

They responded to commands shouted by a sergeant-major-style figure while, in the background, the police band sent mixed musical messages, combining martial airs with tunes such as "Downtown" and "Moon River."

After the ceremony, the recruits flung their hats in the air in the traditional way: even that gesture had been the object of discussion, the authorities deciding in the end to leave it to the new officers themselves. The other recruits, who have yet to graduate, applauded their colleagues enthusiastically, exuding esprit de corps.

The sense of innovation was emphasised by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, who declared: "This is a chance for a new beginning and it is a chance for the public to get behind the police – the public from all traditions, all backgrounds, all cultures."

Acting Chief Constable Colin Cramphorn told the recruits: "You, and those who follow you, will contribute towards a substantial realignment in our staff profile so that we more truly represent the communities we endeavour to serve."

Policing remains an area beset by controversies old and new, ranging from long-standing but unresolved issues such as the 1989 death of the lawyer Pat Finucane to more recent disputes such as the 1998 Omagh bomb and the break-in at Special Branch in Castlereagh, on 17 March.

Within the nationalist community, the debate will continue on whether the Catholic church and the SDLP are correct in their policy of participation, or whether Sinn Fein is right in remaining aloof.

In the 19th century, recurring outbreaks of communal violence in Belfast were generally followed by changes in policing, the authorities invariably concluding that the forces of those days were part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

All the changes never did manage to provide forces with a religious and political balance in their make-up, or which were widely acceptable across the two communities.

Some will pessimistically argue that history is destined to repeat itself, and the PSNI will not manage to pull off the feat of becoming a mixed force, policing a community that is so deeply divided.

Others will say the problem has never been tackled with such determination and with such comprehensive reform and that, this time, history need not repeat itself.

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