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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 02:17 GMT
Policing: An emotive issue
RUC officer
Northern Ireland policing: What will the future hold?
By Ireland correspondent Kevin Connolly

In a peace process where agreement is so often elusive, for once there is something like consensus.

All the main parties and the British and Irish Governments believe that if a deal on the perennial issues of decommissioning, demilitarisation and policing cannot be reached soon there will be a dangerous loss of momentum.

In a deeply divided society like Northern Ireland it is perhaps not surprising that policing is proving to be the most intractable problem of all.

It is an emotive issue which illustrates stark differences between Catholics and Protestants over what sort of place Northern Ireland was in the past and what it will be in the future.

Chris Patten
Catholics want the Patten report implemented in full

To unionists, RUC officers are heroes whose courage has played a vital part in defending Northern Ireland against the threat of terrorism.

To nationalists, it is a paramilitary force established after partition with the clear goal of defending the Protestant grip on power.

Somehow the Good Friday Agreement was meant to produce a new force which would be recognisable enough to unionists to retain their support, and yet new enough to allow nationalist politicians to recommend it as a career to young Catholics.

The moderate nationalist SDLP and Sinn Fein are often separated by matters of principle as well as of policy.

'Symbolic' changes

But they are united in their determination to ensure that all of the proposals for change put forward by the commission on policing reform, chaired by the former Tory minister, Chris Patten must be implemented.

If they are not, both parties say any new police service would remain remote and alien to Catholics.

The badge with the crown, the title Royal Ulster, it's all part of a British Empire culture that most Nationalists just wouldn't consider signing up to

Catholic schoolboy

In part, those changes are symbolic - the changing of the title, uniform and badge to remove what nationalists regard as unionist trappings.

As one teenager at a Catholic Grammar School in North Belfast told me: "The badge with the crown, the title Royal Ulster, it's all part of a British Empire culture that most nationalists just wouldn't consider signing up to."

But there are much more substantial and politically sensitive changes too - particularly over the powers which would be assigned to the new police board to which the Police Service of Northern Ireland would be accountable.

One litmus test for nationalists is the extent to which such a board would have powers to investigate killings where the security forces might be accused of culpable negligence or collusion.

Another would be the powers the police ombudsman would have to order inquiries into such killings in the past.

Manpower shortage

The murders of the nationalist solicitors Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane are just two of the more controversial examples.

It is easy to see why agreement is hard to reach, and why the RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan has decided after some delay to go ahead with this year's recruitment drive.

He says the force will face a manpower shortage if it does not start to advertise now.

Even before police reforms are agreed, he'll be aiming for the new intake to be 50% Catholic and 50% Protestant - a major change for a force which has traditionally been around 90% Protestant.

But without some sort of overall political agreement they'll be new recruits to an old force.

And with a Westminster election looming, the room for manoeuvre in the peace negotiations, already limited, is rapidly dwindling.

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23 Feb 01 | Northern Ireland
Recruits sought for NI police service
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