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Thursday, September 9, 1999 Published at 11:52 GMT 12:52 UK

UK: Northern Ireland

Patten rejects policing report criticism

Chris Patten: Substance of report makes sense

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Chris Patten has defended the controversial changes to the Royal Ulster Constabulary recommended in his commission's report on the future of policing in Northern Ireland.

Anticipating criticism from both unionist and nationalist politicians, Mr Patten called on them to get off the fence and remember they represented people, for whom the report would cause real pain.

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He challenged political leaders to find an alternative to his proposals.

He said: "Politicians 15 months ago signed up to the Good Friday Agreement including the appointment of our commission and the terms of reference which we have tried as hard and honestly as we can to fulfil.

"What on earth did they think they were signing up to when they did that? What on earth did they think we were likely to recommend when we were asked to look at issues like ethos, composition and training and structure? "Ask them, what is there alternative, if what we are saying is wrong or misguided."

'Agreement best way forward'

The former British Hong Kong governor added that change to the police was an integral part of the move towards a peaceful society in Northern Ireland.

He said: "I believe passionately like that common with the large majority in Northern Ireland that the Agreement offers the best way forward so that Northern Ireland has the future which people in NI including police officers deserve.

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"But that depends on people understanding the extent to which the return of normal domestic life in Northern Ireland is distorted by the fact that because of history the police institution is identified with one particular political argument."

He said he would listen to what nationalists, unionists and republicans, head teachers, bishops, politicians and the newspapers say, but he said that he would make a distinction between what politicians say and what the "RUC family" said.

"There is pain in this report for serving and past RUC officers, their families and widows, the bereaved and disabled.

"But I would argue that there is a gain which more than makes up for that if in the future we can ensure that the composition of the police force reflects the whole community and that the whole community supports the police service," he said.

'Get off the fence'

"It is imperative that Catholic, nationalist and republican politicians and leaders should get off the fence. The people and communities they represent have their own stories of pain. There are two stories of pain, and don't let us presented that either side have got it right and the other side have got it wrong.

"But it is vitally important that everyone accepts it is time to support policing if we want a more peaceful, stable and prosperous community."

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Mr Patten also discounted suggestions that the proposals to recruit an equal number of Catholic and Protestant officers, and for closer community policing, with officers staying in the same neighbourhoods for three to five years, would lead to a divided police force policing a divided society.

He said: "We are not in favour of Balkanising the force. We are not in favour of having Catholics nationalist police officers for Catholic nationalist area and Protestant unionist police officers for Protestant unionist areas.

"We want a police force, which whatever the background and whatever the political views of its members is accepted impartially across the community and operates impartially across the community."

Mr Patten appealed to people "to actually read the report and become acquainted with what it says before sound biting".

But he said that to most people the actual substance of the report would "make a hell of a lot of sense".

He recognised that many of the report's proposals could not be implemented until there was a political resolution and an improvement in Northern Ireland's security situation.

But he said many changes proposed by the report on training, ethos, recruitment could be progressed. Progress on policing would help the political situation, he added.

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