The British government’s decision to implement the Patten report on police reform will be welcomed by all those who over the years have fought for a fair, balanced and accountable police force for the North. But the reforms will be found wanting by many.
Unionists who identified the RUC with the Northern Ireland state must face up to the reality that as the state changes to reflect the growing influence and power of the nationalist community, so must the police force.
Republicans have a somewhat more complex reality with which to deal. For decades they attempted to undermine and defeat the RUC through violence. The result has not been the disbandment of the RUC, but its reform. The RUC is not the RIC, a broken and humiliated force dispersed by a more or less successful nationalist revolution. Because no side in the North’s conflict is recognized as victorious, no side can have all its demands met. To the victor goes the spoils of war. And when there is no victor, the spoils have to be shared. That is the political reality for both Unionist and Republican.
The result — the Northern Ireland Police Service — is a compromise that reflects that reality. Many RUC officers will remain to become part of the new force. Others will take a package deal and retire early, leaving room for new, nationalist recruits.
That said, there are some concerns that the reforms do not meet. In particular, the dilution of the powers of the district boards reduces the level of public accountability, and leaves the chief constable still with too much power to determine whether to pursue internal police inquiries. It begs the question as to what will be the forum in which a police officer will have to explain why he did what he did if there are serious questions raised about his actions.
The timetable for bringing in new recruits and its scope seem too laggardly and narrow to many human and civil rights activists. But it is hard for even Sinn Fein to quarrel with the broad thrust of the reforms. In private, republicans have wisely adopted a wait-and-see attitude. They will determine their final response to Patten by the number of young nationalists who now feel they can identify with the new force and seek to join it.
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In the meantime, the government must push ahead and see to it that this generation of nationalist youth will be the one that will police the future with fairness and justice for the new Ireland that is emerging.