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Friday, September 10, 1999 Published at 16:37 GMT 17:37 UK

UK: Northern Ireland

The politics of policing

BBC Northern Ireland Political Editor Stephen Grimason examines the political fallout from a week dominated by the publication of the Patten Report on the future of policing.

The politics of policing in Northern Ireland are such that the Patten Report was seen as a potential nuclear device which could detonate with devastating consequences in the middle of George Mitchell's review of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Patten Commission's terms of reference were set out in the Agreement. Its report is therefore a child of the agreement.

While unionists, nationalists and republicans all signed up to what they hoped would be a new political dispensation, they had widely differing expectations of when the policing review would deliver on a subject more controversial than decommissioning.

It had been hoped the Assembly Executive would have been up and running by the time Patten reported.

'Problem rather than solution'

If all the parties had a stake in government the policing review might have been more easily absorbed - or so the conventional wisdom suggested.

But as the political deadlock continues the recommendations on the future of the force assumed the mantle of problem rather than solution.

On Thursday morning, the British and Irish Governments were hopping about nervously from foot to foot wondering exactly how the parties would react.

Having now seen the responses their feeling is while the report was given a bumpy ride, particularly from unionists, it could have been a lot worse and are hopeful the dust will eventually settle.

[ image: David Trimble: Patten report
David Trimble: Patten report "shoddy"
David Trimble captured the headlines with his "shoddy piece of work" comment but he did not wrap himself in the RUC flag and toss the document into the bin, at least not completely.

There is no hiding the fact however, that unionism is deeply unhappy with the name, badge and flag recommendations.

It may be an emotional argument but that is hardly surprising as any tinkering with the RUC is regarded by unionists as an attempt to equate the force with its terrorist enemies and a suggestion that the men and women who protected them from the worst excesses of the IRA have in some way failed.

Consulting grass roots

Sinn Fein who have arguably even more difficulty with the Patten Report (they sought disbandment as a minimum requirement) played it more cannily.

Faced with a difficult document they opted for the time honoured republican tactic of making non-specific negative comments and then announcing they would be consulting with the grass roots.

Don't expect a special ard Fheis (party conference) however; the leadership believes they would be told exactly what to do with the report!

Many republicans have boiled it down to "new name, new badge, so what?"

On the surface, all of the above has little to do with former Senator Mitchell's review,- but atmospherics are important.


Unionists and republicans will each say the negative reaction to Patten from their constituencies further restricts the room for maneouvre in the negotiations and those discussions, already awash with pessimism, are unlikely to succeed unless risks are taken.

And the review received another blow when Ulster Unionist deputy leader John Taylor confirmed he would not be taking part.

He has said the Good Friday Agreement is not going to work and blamed the activities of the IRA for his change of heart.

But party leader David Trimble now has seven of his ten MPs in the anti-agreement camp.

There is never a good time for a defection but Mr Taylor's timing will be particularly badly received at UUP headquarters.

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