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RUC Reform Friday, 17 August, 2001, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
Q&A: RUC reforms

What did the legislation set out to do?

The legislation set out to change the policing climate and create a police service which both catholic and protestant people in Northern Ireland could identify with.

At the moment, 90% of the force's 13,000 staff are protestant. For that reason alone, a large part of the nationalist community believe that it is not well served by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

So if the changes can bring about a service which is representative of the community as a whole it will help remove one of the main causes of friction in Northern Ireland.

How did the proposals come abou?

During the talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement, nationalist politicians said that policing reform was a key part of Northern Ireland's political process.

The government established the Patten commission, headed by the former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten, and it made 175 recommendations.

They included changing the name and symbols of the force, a reduction in its size, new local accountability, a massive recruitment of catholics, a new oath and a comprehensive gearing of training towards equality and human rights.

What does the Act do

The then Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson said that the Act meant that all sections of the community would have faith in a new policing service.

But during its parliamentary passage, the legislation was attacked by both traditions in Northern Ireland. Unionists said it went too far while nationalists regarded the Bill as a watered-down version of Patten.

What were unionists opposed to?

Dropping the name Royal Ulster Constabulary was the key grievance.

The RUC came into being with its current name after the completion of the partition of Ireland in 1922.

For the next 50 years, the force was widely regarded by nationalists as a pro-unionist force within a "unionist state".

Although its political control changed in the 1970s, that suspicion has not only remained but has been reinforced by events, say nationalists.

During 30 years of the Troubles, 302 RUC officers were killed in paramilitary attacks. Many unionists regard the name change as an insult to the memory of those whom they say held the line against terrorism.

Another major issue for unionists was the flying of the Union Flag over police stations. Patten said that there should be no use of symbols attached to either the British or Irish state - including the flag.

Did the government make changes to meet unionist concerns?

The vast majority of the 175 recommendations made in the Patten report are supported by unionists who backed the Good Friday Agreement.

But Mr Mandelson's legislation differed from the recommendations in several key areas.

The RUC has already been awarded the George Cross by the Queen and a new foundation linked to the medal will at the very least carry the RUC as part of its name.

Mr Mandelson also made sure that the Secretary of State retained the power to decide the final name at a later date. This came despite his earlier statement that the force's new name would be the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Secretary also retained the final say on the flying of the flag and other symbols.

How did nationalists react?

The SDLP gave a warm welcome to Patten. While Sinn Fein initially criticised it for failing to recommend the disbanding of the RUC, they came round to its proposals.

But both parties heavily criticised the legislation.

The SDLP said that there were 44 changes between its provisions and Patten. Sinn Fein put the changes at 75 and bluntly accused the government of having "gutted" Patten.

Nationalist politicians regard the reforms as a vital part of securing an equal stake in society.

Many nationalists believe that the RUC has played a controversial role which has manifested itself in, at the very least, disriminatory policing tactics.

Wht about other criticisms?

In interviews since the publication of the report, Chris Patten has stressed that the recommendations came with the backing of all members of the commission team, and that they all believed that implementation in full was vital to ensuring cross-community support.

As the Bill progressed through Parliament, further criticism began to emerge.

One former Patten commission member, Dr Gerald Lynch, a New York academic, said he was "very worried" about the Bill, saying that it would be a "very big mistake for the future of policing in Northern Ireland" if the legislation fails to create a "new beginning".

But days before the legislation reached the end of its passage in November, his former colleague, Professor Clifford Shearing went further.

Writing in the Guardian newspaper, the Toronto-based criminologist said that the government had "gutted" the Patten report.

He said that the focus of the government bill was the police rather than policing. He specifically attacked what he saw as the watering down of the proposed powers of a community-controlled policing board.

Will Catholics actually want to join a remodelled force?

Many Catholics steered clear of the police because of distrust and a perceived feeling of being a minority within the force.

Unionists argue that the biggest reason for the low level of Catholic recruitment has been the level of republican intimidation of those who have shown any interest in the force.

But, encouragingly, the numbers of Catholics applying to join the RUC rose sharply after the 1994 IRA ceasefire before falling back again when the truce was broken.

The numbers rose again when the ceasefire was restored.

Careers advisors also told the Patten Commission that many youngsters would like a career in policing, just not in Northern Ireland at present.

Why are police numbers being reduced from 13,500 officers to 7,500?

Numbers are being cut in keeping with the security needs of the province.

Ultimately, if the peace process rolls on, there should be no need for so many officers to cover a patch of just one and a half million people.

The RUC's chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, has said that his ultimate goal is to see a police force that is comparable to the "normalised" constabularies anywhere else in the UK.

How will the issue of redundancies be handled?

The Act made special provision for substantial payments to long-serving officers who decide to leave the force.

What happens next - how will the changes be implemented ?

The name will only be changed once the first batch of new recruits are sworn into the service - probably spring 2002.

The government has also appointed a special overseer to verify the reforms.

Read BBC News Online's full special report on policing reform in Northern Ireland

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