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Thursday, 8 March, 2001, 21:28 GMT
Police reform in Northern Ireland

While unionists have sought to focus on the need for decommissioning during the peace process, nationalists have seen the need for policing reform as vital for its community.


One of the most controversial elements of the Good Friday Agreement has been reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein regarded reform as fundamental to achieving equality for their communities.

I hereby do solemnly and sincerely and truly declare and affirm that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of constable and in doing I will act with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all individuals and to their traditions and beliefs

Oath proposed by Patten Report
But, at the same time, the unionist community believed that the changes that were eventually proposed were an insult to the memory of 302 serving officers who had lost their lives during three decades of terrorism.

The Royal Ulster Constabulary has long been a police force that has been overwhelmingly Protestant in profile and, say many nationalists, sectarian in nature.

At the time of the Good Friday Agreement, approximately 90% of its 13,000 officers were Protestant. Why this imbalance has existed is open to question.

Sinn Fein argued that the force is sectarian and no right-thinking Catholic would join its ranks.

Unionists argue that the RUC became a porn in the Troubles as the IRA pressured Catholics not to join, and stigmatised, threatened or targeted those who did.


Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and now a European Commissioner, chaired the international panel charged with coming up with reforms. The team came up with one simple conclusion - that "policing had suffered, often with disastrous consequences, from being a political issue."

The report made 175 recommendations including:

  • Renaming the force the Northern Ireland Police Service
  • A new oath committing officers to uphold human rights
  • Adopting a new cap badge and symbols free of association from either the British or Irish states
  • Removing the Union Flag from police buildings
  • Cutting the force to 7,500 officers over 10 years while recruiting equal proportions from each community
  • A new police board which could hold the force to account. This alone represents a significant shift in the balance of power between a UK law enforcement agency and the people it serves.

    While some of the recommendations, mostly the name and emblem proposals, sparked outrage among unionists, many other elements of the report were accepted as a well thought out and likely to succeed in a new climate.

    Most significantly, all of the members of the Patten Report endorsed the recommendations and stressed that they believed the measures had to be implemented in full without any ministerial tinkering.


    The Police (Northern Ireland) Act putting the Patten recommendations into law was given Royal Assent on 23 November 2000.

    No-one should underestimate the great hurt that altering the title of the RUC will cause to my members, to past members, to injured members, to their families and to bereaved families

    Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan, Jan 2000
    It is intended that the new Police Service of Northern Ireland would take its first new recruits in the autumn of 2001.

    However, since the Bill's publication, republicans and nationalists complained that it did not go far enough in terms of implementing Patten in full.

    The SDLP and Sinn Fein said that the legislation differed from Patten in 44 and 75 areas respectively.

    During its Commons stages, the SDLP put forward 179 amendments. Despite saying that they want to urge young Catholics to join the force, the SDLP says it cannot do so at the moment.

    The most significant of these in headline terms has been the future name and emblems of the force. The secretary of state has retained the power to decide these issues at a later date though nationalists have accused the government of seeking to incorporate the name through the back door.

    Secondly, while new recruits will have to swear the human rights oath proposed in the Patten report - existing officers will be exempted.

    Thirdly, Sinn Fein says the government has not acted to outlaw plastic bullets which achieved a fatal notoriety of their own during riots in the 1980s.

    The RUC: Lauded and condemned
    1922: RUC formed Initial aim of one third Catholic membership
    1969: Catholic representation falls to 11%
    1971: RUC rearmed
    1990s: Catholic representation 8%
    2000: Patten calls for reform - but not disbandment
    2000: Awarded George Cross
    2001: New police service born
    But perhaps the most important in terms of policing practice has been a major impasse over the independence and powers of the policing board.

    Patten intended the board to have the power to order major inquiries into policing where it sought to bring chief constable to account. But the legislation has given the chief constable the right to appeal to the secretary of state for an inquiry to be blocked.

    Nationalists say that this departure from Patten totally undermines the aim of creating a police board firmly embedded in all communities, and influenced by the needs and requirements of all.

    Furthermore, many nationalists say that the board or the policing commissioner needs retrospective powers to order investigations into some of the darkest episodes of the Troubles.

    These include alleged security force collusion in the loyalist killing of two prominent nationalist lawyers, Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson.

    On the other hand, some unionists have warned that the plans for district policing boards could allow former paramilitaries to influence policing policy, effectively privatising its delivery to the very organisations which should wither as the peace process strengthens.

    To date, neither the SDLP nor Sinn Fein have agreed to join the policing board - something that would signal their de facto approval of the legislation.

    The Catholic Bishop of Derry, Seamus Hegarty, has also said that he believes the church cannot yet recommend young people join the new service, but that he respected the decision of those who believed they should.

    Despite their initial opposition, the Ulster Unionists say that they have accepted the legislation and are urging the SDLP to sign up.


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