By Jack Holland
Acceptance of the Patten Commission report’s recommendations about reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland’s police force, is more widespread within the ranks than might be imagined from Unionist opposition to the report, according to well-placed sources.
“Most RUC men see no real problem with Patten,” said a senior officer. “As long as there’s peace.” But the police believe that the British government will push ahead with implementing the reforms despite the controversy over the status of the IRA cease-fire and the lack of decommissioning of paramilitary weapons.
They believe that “this is the government’s final card,” in the words of one, meaning that it is part of a last push to convince the IRA to begin decommissioning, and thus get David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Part leader, into the executive with Sinn Fein.
Said the senior RUC source: “The government is saying, ‘Look, we’re decommissioning our people first.” The British hope that this will enable Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams to convince the IRA leadership to initiate the disposal of its huge weapons stocks. The IRA’s refusal to do so has remained a stumbling block for the drive to enact the Good Friday peace agreement’s provisions for the setting up of a power-sharing executive because of the UUP’s demands that decommissioning must begin before Sinn Fein is allowed to take seats in the new government.
The government’s eagerness to implement the Patten recommendations is indicated by the timetable it proposed for discussions with the Police Federation over its proposed redundancy packages. The government suggested six weeks be set aside for the talks. The federation was asking for six months. In the end, a compromise of three months was accepted by both sides.
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Most of the Patten recommendations come as no surprise to the police. Within the Special Branch it was known for over a year, for instance, that proposals would be made to amalgamate the department within the Criminal Investigation Department. Already, some senior Special Branch officers have been moved into the CID.
Insiders say that the easiest part of the recommendations will be the reduction of police numbers over the next few years. Patten recommends a force of 7,500, compared with the 13,000 officers who currently make up the RUC.
According to calculations, 850 officers who are eligible will accept early retirement packages. The 2,900 full-time reservists who are on a three-year contract will not have their contracts renewed but will instead be offered a year’s full pay. There are another 1,000 officers who either have served 30 years or are within a few years of meeting that criterion and will accept a retirement package. If added to these are the other officers who will accept the various deals that will be offered, according to their age and length of service, the strength of the force could rapidly be reduced to about 8,000.
While the government seems keen to move swiftly at implementing some aspects of the proposed reforms, the overall security situation will still play a role in its deliberations. Some fears have been expressed within security circles that the recent release of Johnny Adair — the UDA leader responsible for the upsurge in loyalist violence in the early 1990s — could spark a series of killings within Protestant paramilitary ranks. Adair is known to have enemies within both the UDA and UVF. Before his release from prison last week, he and loyalist leader Michael Stone came to blows. Stone was imprisoned for life for the murderous attack on a republican funeral in Belfast in 1988.
Others in the UDA are concerned that Adair might attempt to muscle in on their lucrative drug rackets. As well, of course, his many enemies within the republican movement remain keen to exact revenge.
Confrontations between the Real IRA and the Provisional IRA have also heightened tension and added to the arguments of those within the police who are advising the government to act cautiously before moving ahead on Patten Commission recommendations.