Chris Patten, the former chairman of the independent commission on policing reform, has seen fit to jump into the ongoing wrangling over the Northern Ireland Police Bill. The bill, which is supposed to embody many of the recommendations drawn up by his commission in September 1999, has been under sustained fire from nationalists, who allege that it fails to do justice to the Patten report.
After a long silence, Patten stated this week that he is dismayed at the controversy surrounding the bill. He says the provisions will provide "new policing arrangements for Northern Ireland which are second to none in the world" if measured against the requirements sought by his commission. He lists these as effectiveness, efficiency, impartiality, accountability, representativeness and respect for human rights.
"Get those right," he says, "and you depoliticize policing in Northern Ireland."
Interestingly enough, he does not actually say the bill has gotten those right, though he implies it. In fact, his statement is focused not on a point-by-point demonstration that the bill and the Patten report are equivalent but on an appeal to all sides to stop arguing and "get back to the future." When he does refer to the legislation it is to point out that it "is not and never could have been the whole story. Most of what was in our report did not require legislation."
In other words, as Northern Ireland Secretary of State Peter Mandelson has reminded us, it is the implementation that counts, involving as it does recruitment procedures, police training and education, and the service’s reorganization.
This appeal is surely aimed at the SDLP, which has yet to decide whether to back the new service. It is therefore disingenuous of Patten to claim that the aim of his commission was to take politics out of policing when his intervention has a very deliberate political aim — to persuade the SDLP to say yes to the bill.
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The SDLP would be better to bide its time and see just how the government intends to implement the bill and not get too exercised by Patten’s supposed "disinterested" intervention.