Plan to axe RUC stations sparks Unionist fears

Unionist suspicions of a secret deal between the British Government and republicans were aggravated on Wednesday by revelations that more than two dozen RUC stations were facing closure.

While the authorities have denied any closures would be motivated by a desire to encourage decommissioning from the IRA, the claims have added to the general air of uneasiness and uncertainty.

The Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson said that the RUC Chief Constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, was proposing the closure of 26 stations. Mr Donaldson said they included strategically important security bases in South Armagh, Belfast and Londonderry.

He added: "Obviously I'm alarmed at this development, because the closure of 26 police stations in a small place like Northern Ireland is going to have a very significant impact."

The stations include some in areas such as west Belfast, Londonderry, Newry and south Armagh, which came under regular IRA attack during the Troubles. Life has been much quieter in recent times, although the Real IRA still mounts occasional attacks.

David Burnside, MP for South Antrim and the Ulster Unionist defence spokesman described the closure programme as alarming. He said: "There is increasing criminality and continuing threat of terrorism. The Northern Ireland Office and Police Authority should seriously reconsider the budget for the RUC."

The list of police stations is in addition to the four military installations mentioned as possible closures in the recent London-Dublin document dealing with demilitarisation and other issues.

Sir Ronnie said it was possible the RUC would rationalise its premises "and look at more efficient ways of going about our business and being accessible to the public". But he added: "We will not let security suffer as a result of any changes."

An RUC spokesman said it was public knowledge that some closures were inevitable. He added that before any decisions were taken, the RUC would be consulting local communities and the Northern Ireland Police Authority, which oversees RUC affairs.

Joe Stewart, the chief executive of the police authority, said an operational matter was being misinterpreted. "The RUC district commanders have come to the Chief Constable and said, 'I have looked at this area and that area, and I think that in terms of resource allocation and benefit to the community, I can do without the maintenance costs associated with this station'," he said. "From that, people have developed, with unfortunate timing, into saying this is something to do with the politics of Northern Ireland. It isn't."

Pat Armstrong, the police authority's chairman, also rejected speculation linking the move to the peace process. He said financial pressure, the demands of the smaller service and the changing security environment meant there was no alternative but to review the need for some police locations.

More than 1,000 officers have recently left the RUC as part of a programme offering generous financial packages for early retirement. These include a large number of senior officers.

The Government plans to replace most of them with new officers, many of them Catholic, as part of the process of modernising the RUC and renaming it the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

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