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Last Updated: Wednesday, 19 March 2008, 10:18 GMT
Dramatic changes in NI policing
By Vincent Kearney
BBC NI home affairs correspondent

One of the most dramatic changes during the past 10 years has been in policing. The RUC is gone, republicans support the police, and almost 25% of the new PSNI are Catholics.

"SS RUC" was the derogatory chant used by many republicans throughout the Troubles.

police officers
The devolution of policing and justice is the final piece of the devolution jigsaw

The phrase encapsulated Sinn Fein and the IRA's intense animosity towards the police and the entire criminal justice system.

More than 300 police officers were killed during the Troubles, the vast majority by the IRA, and more than 11,000 others were injured.

Being a member of the RUC whether on or off duty, was enough to make you what the IRA termed a "legitimate target".

That animosity was not limited to violent republicanism.

The RUC simply wasn't acceptable in nationalist areas, where many viewed it not as police force, but as a militia with a political purpose, to uphold British rule in Northern Ireland.

The majority of unionists had a very different attitude.

For them, the RUC was a comfort blanket and a vital bulwark against republican terrorism, the frontline in a battle for their very survival.
Former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten
Chris Patten's report made 175 recommendations

Policing was, and remains, one of the most sensitive aspects of the political process.

So much so, that it was the subject of a special commission headed by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten.

His commission published a report in September 1999, almost a year and half after the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

The Patten Report made 175 recommendations for change, some of them highly contentious.

As a result, the very name of the police force was changed.

The RUC was consigned to history in November 2001, being replaced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

The other fundamental change has been the composition of the police service.

When the Patten report was published, there were about 13,000 police officers, and only 8% of them were Catholic.

The report recommended a highly controversial method to redress the balance: 50-50 recruitment, which stated that half of all new officers should be Catholic.

Attractive redundancy packages were offered, and seized upon.

More than 3,000 officers have taken voluntary redundancy since March 2001, at a cost of millions of pounds.

Many retired officers refer to their "Patten sunrooms", "Patten extensions" and even "Patten holiday homes."

The RUC logo
The RUC was consigned to history in November 2001
The plan has had significant success. Today there are 7,500 officers, and 23% of them are Catholic. The proportion is expected to reach, and possibly exceed, 30% within three years.

The numbers of Catholics applying to join demonstrates a dramatic change in attitudes.

During the 13 recruitment drives over the past seven years, almost 37% of the 80,459 applicants identified themselves as Catholic.

That is also reflected in the attitudes of members of the public.

Sinn Fein members now sit on the Policing Board, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago

In the last survey of public perceptions published by the policing board in October last year, more than 60% of Catholics, and more than 70% of Protestants, said they believed the police treat people fairly.

The existence of the Policing Board itself, tasked with holding the police to account, and a Police Ombudsman to investigate complaints, have been other significant changes.

The Chief Constable, Sir Hugh Orde, often refers to himself as the most accountable police chief in Europe.

Sinn Fein members now sit on the Policing Board, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

When republicans complain about policing, their gripe is often that there aren't enough officers on the ground, not too many.

And while generations of republicans demonised the police, they now talk of the need for acceptance and support.

Police officers now patrol areas where they previously couldn't tread without huge support from the Army.

The threat to police officers hasn't gone away.

Republican dissidents tried to murder two of them in Londonderry and Dungannon last November, but those attacks were criticised by Sinn Fein and all the indicators demonstrate that the Catholic view of the police has fundamentally changed.

But the controversy hasn't gone away either.

Reports by the former Police Ombudsman, Nuala O'Loan, the former head of the Metropolitan Police Sir John Stevens and others have concluded that there was collusion between members of the RUC and loyalists.

Worse could still come. The report by the group set up to look at how best to deal with the past, headed by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley, is expected to refer to widespread collusion with both loyalist and republican paramilitaries.

Many former RUC officers feel betrayed by such claims and believe there is a concerted effort to rewrite history by demonising the force.

Critics on the other hand say exposing the wrongs of the past is essential for building confidence for the future of policing.

In the not too distant future, republicans could even find themselves in charge of policing.

The devolution of policing and justice is the final, and perhaps most controversial, piece of the devolution jigsaw puzzle.

When it is completed the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, will have their hands on the levers of control for the entire criminal justice system.

The days of "SS RUC" will be very distant memories.

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