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Wednesday, September 8, 1999 Published at 08:12 GMT 09:12 UK

UK: Northern Ireland

A force to be reckoned with

BBC Northern Ireland Chief Security Correspondent Brian Rowan looks at the background to the Patten report into the future of policing in Northern Ireland.

BBC NI Chief Security Correspondent Brian Rowan: Report will be difficult for RUC and republicans
Think back to a few weeks before Christmas last year and to the Oslo stage on which David Trimble and John Hume collected their Nobel Peace Prizes.

Remember Trimble's speech and his reference to the hills the Northern Ireland peace process had yet to climb - the hills being decommissioning and policing.

Nine months on those hills are looking more and more like mountains and policing could yet prove to be the highest peak.

The task of scaling that mountain was handed to an independent commission chaired by the former Conservative Party chairman and Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten.

The Search for Peace
His commission grew out of the Good Friday Agreement and out of the section headed Policing and Justice and in June last year Patten and his team began their work.

[ image: Chris Patten: Chairs independent commission]
Chris Patten: Chairs independent commission
The agreement, we were told, provided "the opportunity for a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole."

On Thursday Chris Patten and his seven other commissioners will publish a report containing around 200 recommendations. It is entitled A New Beginning to Policing. But can it work?

Republicans interpret a new beginning to mean an end to the RUC.

Republican concerns

Sinn Fein wants the force disbanded. They say existing officers should have to apply for membership of a new service - that service should be unarmed and there should be a ban on plastic bullets.

They'll be disappointed with what they will read in respect of these demands because Patten recommends neither disbandment, disarmament nor the banning of plastic bullets.

Patten will recommend a title change, with the Royal Ulster Constabulary becoming the Northern Ireland Police Service.

Unionists don't like this.

The RUC is currently 92 % Protestant and civilians are likely to replace police officers in a number of key posts in the areas of training and personnel.

There will also be a progressive reduction in the size of the force.

Northern Ireland has more than 13,000 police officers. For an equivalent population elsewhere in the United Kingdom a constabulary would be about 3,000 strong and here the expectation is that numbers will eventually be reduced to between 7,500-8,000.

The full-time RUC Reserve numbering 3,000 officers on three year contracts will be a casualty of Patten's proposed changes with disbandment to be recommended.

Re-shaping the RUC

There will be a re-shaping of the police structure removing police divisions and reducing the number of sub-divisions.

The RUC has 38 sub-divisions. The Northern Ireland Police Service will have 26 units within its structure to fit in with local government boundaries.

[ image: The current structure of the force is facing change]
The current structure of the force is facing change
The change is in line with the RUC's own Fundamental Review of Policing dating back to 1995-96.

The Northern Ireland Police Authority, tasked with ensuring an effective and efficient police service and police accountability, will also go as a result of the Patten recommendations to be replaced by a new body.

And the report is also likely to recommend that a commissioner from overseas be appointed to monitor the programme of change.

When he comes to sell his report to the Northern Ireland public, Chris Patten will recommend that it is not cherrypicked.

But he knows already that unionists do not like some of what is contained in it and he will know too that his recommendations fall far short of republican demands.

Time of crisis

The report is also being dropped onto the political table at yet another time of crisis in Northern Ireland.

Three days before its publication date former US Senator George Mitchell began his review of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement with unionists and republicans blaming each other for the lack of progress so far.

[ image: The logo could be dropped]
The logo could be dropped
The Patten report is the product of 15 months of work.

During that time he has heard from the political parties in Northern Ireland, from the public and from many others with an interest in policing.

The commission has also studied other policing models.

After publication, the next stage in the process is a period of consultation and then the task of implementing change will fall to the Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan.

In a recent message to his officers he said that would happen over a "lengthy evolutionary period" and would have to be measured against an assessment of the security situation.

While there has been a significant reduction in the levels of violence in Northern Ireland, the different terrorist organisations have kept their structures and have not given up any of their weapons.

So changing the face of policing will be a gradual process with careful thought given to every step on this tricky climb.

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