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EDITIONS
Friday, 2 November, 2001, 18:25 GMT
Policing changes will take time
Brian Rowan

This weekend, some three and a half years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, new policing in Northern Ireland will begin to take root.

But it is a process that is going to take time - lots of time, according to the American policing expert who has been called in by the British Government to oversee the many changes.

Tom Constantine, who operates under the title of Oversight Commissioner, comes not with a magic wand but with a realistic assessment of the scale of the task he has been given.

And those who have demanded that change should occur "just like that" will be disappointed.

Constantine reckons it could take anything between seven and 10 years to do what Chris Patten and his commissioners recommended.

Proposals

Their report - mapping out the route to a new beginning - is deep and detailed and packed with almost 200 proposals - many of which were not immediately accepted.

Indeed it took a serious bit of abracadabra to transform an original Police Bill into a Police Act which now more accurately reflects the report's recommendations for a "new beginning".

In the hype and in the high which followed the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998, there were expectations that change would happen more quickly.


Power-sharing, demilitarisation, decommissioning and new policing have all been problem issues

But power-sharing, demilitarisation, decommissioning and new policing have all been problem issues.

The new political institutions have stood on anything but solid ground.

'Not persuaded'

Rather than be completed by May 2000, decommissioning only began a week ago.

And, on policing, republicans have not yet been persuaded that what is on offer amounts to an end to the RUC.

But, over the next few days, the "new beginning" will start to take shape.

On Sunday, 79 years into its existence, the title of the Royal Ulster Constabulary will go.


The religious make up of the RUC was 92% Protestant, which is why Patten and his team of commissioners suggested the new procedures

New policing, the new beginning, will mean a new name - The Police Service of Northern Ireland.

There are new methods for selecting new trainees - recruitment to PSNI is on a 50-50 Catholic-Protestant basis.

The religious make up of the RUC was 92% Protestant, which is why Patten and his team of commissioners suggested the new procedures.

Just over 300 trainees have now been selected and the second phase of the recruitment process is under way.

The first of the new recruits will begin their training this weekend.

Board's role

Something else that is new is a Policing Board, which in the post-Patten order replaces the old Police Authority.

The board's role is to hold the police to account, and what is different is the spread of representation.

Its first meeting is on 7 November and, for the first time, nationalist politicians in the SDLP will take their places alongside unionist members and the nine independents.

Sir Ronnie Flanagan will become the first chief constable of the new service
Sir Ronnie Flanagan will become the first chief constable of the new service

There are 19 seats in all, but, as I mentioned earlier, Sinn Fein has not yet been persuaded by the new arrangements and is boycotting the board and refusing to encourage young nationalists to join the service.

And, outside mainstream republicanism, there is still a threat from dissidents - a threat which will slow down moves towards a routinely unarmed police service, another of Patten's recommendations.

'Change occuring'

Earlier this week, the dissidents placed a bomb on a bus and forced the driver to take it to a police station on the fringes of west Belfast. But despite that continuing threat, change is occurring.

On Sunday, Sir Ronnie Flanagan will become the last chief constable of the RUC and the first chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

As new recruits come through his doors, hundreds of officers who spent years in the ranks of the RUC are leaving under severance arrangements negotiated after the Patten Report.

And, in the face of unionist opposition, decisions will have to be taken soon on a new badge and flag for the police service.

The process of change is under way. It may not happen "just like that", but happen it will.

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

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