Just over a year after the Patten commission on policing delivered its verdict on one of the most vexed issues in the North, the British government has passed into law (pending the queen’s signature) the bill supposed to encapsulate the commission’s recommendations on police reform.
In all, it has been a sorry, frustrating and divisive process.
The Patten report’s 175 recommendations for reforming the police service were meant to extract politics from policing. Ironically, the report was dragged through the political mire, and instead of depoliticizing the issue it became something of a political football itself.
In the Northern context this was, unfortunately, inevitable. But the end result has been to produce a bill that does not have the support of Sinn Fein, and which will probably not receive the full support of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, though that party has yet to express a definitive opinion.
However, though the bill is becoming law, the game is not quite over yet. Since it only covers those matters that need to be enacted in law, such as changes to the force’s name, the powers of its policing boards, and its overall Catholic-Protestant ratio, there is much that has been left to the discretion of the government. This will be decided upon in the implementation stage of the bill, which will begin almost immediately after the queen signs it into law within the next two weeks.
The SDLP are hoping that such issues as the role of the Special Branch and the future of the Full-Time Reserve will be decided to the satisfaction of the nationalist community. They want to see the Special Branch — responsible during the conflict for countering the paramilitary terror campaigns — under the control of the Criminal Investigations Department, and the reserve disbanded. They also want to see the remaining interrogation centers, responsible for so many allegations of abuse in years past, shut down. But even if these measures are taken, it remains to be seen if they will be enough to win the wholehearted support of moderate nationalists. And if the SDLP should say no, then the new police service will simply be doomed from the start.
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Such an outcome would have a serious knock-on effect for the whole political process.
Sinn Fein has already made its position clear. Last weekend, one of the party’s most prominent spokesmen, Pat Doherty, warned that the British prime minister, Tony Blair, had "ruined" the chance for to advance the decommissioning process. That is, there will be no "reengagement" between the IRA and the independent commission on decommissioning, as demanded by Dublin, London, the Unionist Party and the SDLP. He reminded the British that the IRA had made it plain that the reengagement would only take place in "the context of political change." That context, he said, has been destroyed.
It would have been created had the British government implemented the Patten report "in full," according to republicans. In their eyes, and the eyes of many others, the government has failed Patten. The outlook for further progress on the arms front is, therefore, bleak.
It is another irony, then, that the struggle for a balanced and accountable police force may well have, in the end, undermined hopes for a swift advance to a resolution of the conflict. For without movement on arms, it is doubtful if the already shaky institutions of the devolved government can survive for very long. Another collapse would put the agreement itself into review, with who knows what consequences.