By Jack Holland
There often seems to be a kind of synchronicity at work in Northern Ireland. Take the issue of policing. On Thursday of this week, the Patten Commission on reform of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is scheduled to be published. it is an event viewed with a mixture of trepidation and anxiety by many. Turn the clock back 30 years less one month and you’ll find that in the fall of 1969, on Oct. 9, to be exact, as the North still smoldered from the fires of the August riots, the Hunt Commission on policing published its conclusions.
In 1969, there was a feeling in the air that the situation had entered a new phase and that things in the North would never be the same. There was a similar feeling abroad in the aftermath of the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement in April 1998, one of whose provisions was for the sitting up of a commission to look at the contentious issue of policing the North. Unfortunately, as that provision is about to be fulfilled (at the very least in the formal sense), much of the hope created by the new agreement has dissipated. Just as unfortunately, the commission’s report is likely to further deepen the sense of frustration and anger that seems to be replacing the early euphoria. Like the issue of paramilitary arms decommissioning, it runs the risk of becoming yet another obstacle to a settlement rather than a means of bringing one nearer. But that, I fear, is part of the history of attempts to reform the institutions of Northern Ireland, as a glance back three decades will show.
In 1969, the Hunt Report recommended the abolition of the B-Specials, the disarming of the regular constabulary and the changing of its uniform. All were instituted swiftly by the British government, with Labor leader Harold Wilson at its head. The RUC was given a new full-time reserve force. The B-Specials were replaced by the Ulster Defense Regiment, under British army control. That at the time was viewed by most Catholics as a distinct advance. They regarded the Specials as an out-and-out sectarian body, and in those days, British soldiers were still having something of honeymoon with local nationalists. But the political impact of the Hunt reforms was disastrous. It was probably one of most influential factors which led to the rise of loyalist paramilitary groups — the other being the abolition of the Stormont parliament in 1972.
Protestants were furious at Hunt. As they saw it, just when it seemed as of the IRA was about to start another campaign, Britain destroyed Ulster’s main line of defense against republicanism.
Thirty years on, has anything changed? Looked at from a Unionist perspective, not much. Almost any reforms the Patten Commission recommends which will make the police more amenable to Nationalists will be certain to be viewed as yet another example of "perfidious Albion" at work to undermine the Unionist cause. It might be pointed out that in 1969, Unionists had a lot more to be afraid of than they do now. The Provisional IRA is observing a cease-fire that has lasted more than two years. In contrast, 30 years ago, the IRA was on the verge of launching its bloodiest campaign against Northern Ireland.
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The Unionists do not see it that way. The recent acrimony over Secretary of State Mo Mowlam’s failure to rule that the IRA has violated its cease-fire stems from Unionist fears that despite of its "cessation of military operations," their traditional enemy is secretly rearming itself, ready to strike when the British have emasculated the North’s police force. Any attempt to reform the police under such circumstances is bound to provoke Unionists who have already threatened a "massive campaign" to prevent even a name change.
When a story was leaked two weeks ago by the Belfast Telegraph that in addition to a name change, the RUC would loose its traditional badge, the queen’s picture would be removed from police stations, and the Union Jack run down — among other things — John Taylor (the UUP’s loose canon) fired off a dire threat that such changes "could be the final blow to the Belfast agreement."
In October 1969, Protestants were as good as their word, and backed up their threats with some of the worst rioting Belfast had suffered, in which a police officer was killed along two civilians. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, loyalist vigilantes armed themselves, preparing to make up for what they saw as the weakening of "their" police force.
I don’t see John Taylor taking to the streets with a petrol bomb in one hand and a rock in the other to protest police restructuring. Nor do I envision a revival of loyalist paramilitarism — though it is always possible that fragments of the UDA and UVF might resort to violence in protest, if the Patten reforms prove to be even vaguely as radical as those of Hunt. Paramilitarism as a political force has probably exhausted itself in Northern Ireland. But the capacity for Unionism to disrupt the already fragile political process remains. Certainly, recommendations for a dramatic restructuring of the police force would make the UUP leader David Trimble’s position even more difficult in relation to his own right wing. It would certainly harden its members in their refusal to countenance entering government with Sinn Fein without prior decommissioning. This would ensure that no political progress toward setting up a power-sharing executive would be made for the foreseeable future.
The politics of policing remains as sensitive an issue in 1999 as it was in 1969 — even more so, perhaps, since in the intervening years republicans have killed more than 300 RUC officers and Catholics have made complaint after complaint about the role of the force. In one area Patten cannot be as radical as Hunt: the question of arms. The RUC is, in effect, a disarmed force, thanks to Hunt. But with the rise of the Provisional IRA, individual officers were allowed to carry weapons for their own protection. Sinn Fein has been demanding that the force should be an "unarmed" one. This is only certain to infuriate Unionists even more, given the fact that the Provisional IRA has steadfastly refused to disarm. Perhaps that is why Sinn Fein made the demand in the first place. One would think it has a sufficient grasp of political reality to realize that no government is going to dismantle its police force while still faced with several fully armed terrorist organizations.