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Saturday, 3 November, 2001, 19:24 GMT
RUC courage 'will not be forgotten'
Tribute has been paid to officers by prime minister
Tribute has been paid to officers by prime minister
Prime Minister Tony Blair has said the "courage, sacrifices and professionalism of RUC officers and their families" will not be forgotten.

Tony Blair's comments were made in a letter to RUC Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan as the force prepares for the changeover to the Police Service of Northern Ireland on Sunday.

The name change comes as part of sweeping reforms to the service under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace accord.

In the letter sent on Friday, the prime minister said the service of RUC officers had "directly contributed to the circumstances in which we can all look forward to a more normal, peaceful society in Northern Ireland".

Tony Blair:
Tony Blair: "RUC sacrifice will not be forgotten"

As the Royal Ulster Constabulary changes into the Police Service of Northern Ireland on Sunday, the Policing Board which will oversee and hold the new service to account, will assume its powers.

The first recruits to the PSNI will also start training on Sunday.

The chief constable said he welcomed the prime minister's recognition of the "professional and unstinting service which the RUC has rendered to all of the people of Northern Ireland during its proud 79 year history".

Mr Blair told the Sir Ronnie that the "number and nature of changes you have already embraced positively and constructively is a major credit to the service".

RUC chief constable
Sir Ronnie Flanagan welcomed letter from Mr Blair
"The bravery, dignity and resolve which police officer, their civilian colleagues and their families have displayed in the darkest of times are qualities which I firmly believe will endure into the PSNI," he added.

The prime minister said he recognised that 4 November would be regarded as a sad day in the service.

"I understand that. I hope, however, that it will also be seen as a proud day - a day both to reflect on the achievements of the past, and to look to a new beginning to policing.

"And to a service which is gaining the widespread community support and the further enhancement to its wider reputation that it undoubtedly deserves," he added.

'New era'

Earlier, Sir Ronnie urged all sides in Northern Ireland to keep politics out of the new era of policing in the province.

He also said he expected to be replaced as chief constable "in the not too distant future".

He said there was now a real chance for the service to have the full endorsement of Protestants and Catholics, including republicans.

However, he ruled out suggestions that former paramilitaries could eventually end up in police uniforms.

Sinn Fein is the only party in the province which refuses to endorse the new service, but Sir Ronnie said he believed the party would eventually back the new arrangements. Some unionists have claimed that Sunday marks the disbandment of the RUC.

But Sir Ronnie dismissed those claims as "absolute nonsense".

More than 300 recruits for the new service have already been selected.

Forty seven of them, drawn equally from the Catholic and Protestant community, will begin their training at the weekend.

The recruits will undergo a 20-week classroom-based programme of training, 10 weeks' weapons and riot training and 10 weeks' work experience before graduating next spring.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Peter Gould
"The transformation of the RUC is still a source of political controversy"
Read BBC News Online's full special report on policing reform in Northern Ireland

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Background

OTHER SPECIAL REPORTS
See also:

02 Nov 01 | N Ireland
31 Oct 01 | RUC Reform
21 Sep 01 | N Ireland
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