Republican News · Thursday 20 January 2000

[An Phoblacht]

More than cosmetic changes needed

Last September, First Minister David Trimble threatened to resign if the proposals by the Patten Commission on policing were implemented. Interestingly, this threat has not been repeated over the past weeks as it gradually became clear that Secretary of State Peter Mandelson, despite his fulsome praise of the force, was intent on carrying out most of the recommendations contained in the Commission's report. Although Trimble was reputed to be ``seething with anger'' at the leaks ahead of this Wednesday's statement by Mandelson, he stopped short of restating any intention to resign over the issue. Instead, it was left to Ken Maginnis to huff and puff that implementation ``would undermine'' the peace process.

Maginnis also made the curious claim in the run-up to the announcement that the proposed changes would ``re-politicize'' the police force and ``set policing back 30 years''. Exactly when it was that the RUC was not a political institution Maginnis did not make clear. Nor was it apparent who the former B-Special thought had been in control of policing 30 years ago, if not his party.

Central to the current Unionist argument against change is an attempt to shift the blame for the RUC's failings onto the Catholic population; any problems with policing, they insist, amounts to no more than an erroneous `perception' by Catholics of the RUC as hostile, corrupt and sectarian, as if this `perception' were not supported by very real experience, and because Catholics are `intimidated' out of joining the RUC by republicans rather than because of the intolerable working environment.

But, despite this and despite the highly publicised presentation of a petition to Downing Street, orchestrated by the Police Federation and the Daily Telegraph, demanding the retention of the RUC in its present form, there has in fact been a de facto acknowledgement by the force itself that the game is up and major change can be avoided no longer. Representatives of the force have already begun discussing redundancy terms with the Northern Ireland Office, with hundreds of officers allegedly keen to exploit the generous terms to be offered.

At the core of the Patten Report was a stated desire to depoliticise policing. It acknowledged that the RUC has historically been the effective instrument of unionism and that the role and activities of the RUC have, since its formation, been a central component of the north's political landscape. It accepted that the force is seen as ``our police'' by the unionist population, an assertion amply borne out by the intensity of unionist anger at any proposed change. It concluded that, in general terms, the symbols of the British monarchy and state, which form an integral part of the ethos and identity of the RUC, were undesirable. It recommended that the force should be renamed the Northern Ireland Police Service; that it adopt a new badge and symbols which are ``entirely free from any association with either the British or Irish states'', citing the crest of the Assembly as an example; that ``the Union flag should no longer be flown from police buildings''; and that ``on those occasions on which it is appropriate to fly a flag on police buildings, the flag flown should be free from association with the British or Irish states''.

Although the proposed reduction of police numbers to around 7,500 would be welcome, as would the possibility of greater local control of the force through police partnership boards, the changes to the name, oath and symbols of the RUC, whilst crucial, represent only a cosmetic change to the external appearance of the force, and do little to address the continuous violations of human rights, collusion and overt sectarianism, issues which in all the unionist sound and fury have been ignored. It is for such reasons that Sinn Féin and others have insisted that the slate must be wiped clean and an entirely new police force created in order to avoid the probability that officers who have indulged in horrendous violations will be allowed to continue in the force.

d as ever, the restructuring of the RUC has been hedged around with qualifications, with the Secretary of State declaring that any changes were dependent on a number of other factors, most specifically the ``security situation''. The introduction of all the changes is to be `phased', Mandelsonian for `very slow'.

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