Category: Archive

Editorial Policing David Trimble

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The great experiment that is the Good Friday peace agreement continues to unravel before our eyes. The Ulster Unionist Party’s reaction to the Patten Commission Report on policing is just the latest stage in this dispiriting process that began not long after the agreement was signed back in April 1998.

Patten’s findings were, of course, bound to be controversial. The Royal Ulster Constabulary is an institution that, like the Stormont parliament, is identified by Unionists as part and parcel of their "Ulster." But UUP leader David Trimble did sign up to an agreement that explicitly sought to find a new beginning for policing the North. That is what Patten set out to do, following strictly the agreement’s terms. And that is what, at the end of the day, whatever one thinks of his recommendations, he did.

The Unionist Party has rejected his recommendations. As usual, their concern is mainly with the removal of the old symbols — the name, the harp and crown, the Union Jack, Her Majesty’s portrait, and so forth. They then argue that the recommendations, including a commitment to making human rights central to the new police force’s concerns and a huge increase in the number of Catholics serving in it, undermine the effectiveness of policing. Surely, if nationalists are able to accept the new police service on the basis of these changes, that could only lead to greater effectiveness in a force that for years has been denied cooperation from that community? But logic has nothing to do with Unionist arguments.

The identification through symbols of the police force with the Unionist view of the North is what they are trying to defend, not the principles of effective and fair policing.

Another important factor in Unionist reaction to Patten is the political weakness of the party leader. With almost every decision he has taken recently, whether it was to reject the "Way Forward" proposals of last July, which would have allowed the power-sharing executive to start functioning and paramilitary arms decommissioning to begin, or the latest "No" to Patten, Trimble has shown that he is allowing himself to be dragged from the "Yes" camp into the "No" camp. In the meantime, he is straddling both.

The consensus in Unionism that said "Yes" to change in the form of the Good Friday agreement has been allowed to collapse in the face of the resurgent right-wing opposition embodied by Jeffrey Donaldson and sometimes (depending on his mood) John Taylor. Trimble brought Donaldson back into the fold after he had stormed out of negotiations before the agreement was signed back in April 1998. His aim was to appease the right wing, but he has ended up weakening his own position, perhaps fatally.

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Meanwhile, Sinn Fein and the republican movement wait and watch. They are off the hook as far as decommissioning is concerned. They can bide their time in giving their response to the Patten Report. Watching Unionism implode is a very distracting phenomenon. Unfortunately, the long-term consequences might not be so entertaining for those who still have hopes for success of the Good Friday agreement.

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