By Jack Holland
During his time as chief constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and then, briefly, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, Sir Ronnie Flanagan had ample cause to ponder the words of his favorite poet, William Butler Yeats:
Things fall apart. The center cannot hold,
Mere anarchy is loosed up the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed
And everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned . . .
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These words might have sprung to his mind as he contemplated the several scenes that have burned themselves into the public mind during the 5 1/2 years in his post as top cop: the massed ranks of Orangemen threatening mayhem at Drumcree in 1997, the devastation of the main street of Omagh one year later, and the howling protesters hurling obscene abuse as well as rocks and bombs at the Catholic schoolgirls of Holy Cross in 2001.
These were aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict, and though awful, they did fit into a pattern of violence and the problem of how to contain it that chief constables have grown accustomed to since 1969. But Flanagan had also to cope with the strain of managing a force that was undergoing the most drastic reforms in its history. This came with the publication in September 1999 of the Patten Report on policing, part of the Good Friday agreement, which advocated an overhaul of the RUC to bring it into line with goal of creating a nonsectarian civilian force, able to deal with the new realities of the peace process. Indeed, the chief constable’s last months were consumed with controversy directly linked to changes brought about by the Patten reforms. He had to deal with the new office of Ombudsman and a new Police Board with enhanced powers. This cast a shadow over his departure.
The irony of a reformer being tripped up by reforms is not lost on observers. Flanagan was part of that generation of policemen which entered a force that has been undergoing almost constant reform since he joined it in 1970. There was the Hunt Report of 1969, which disarmed the RUC and disbanded the B-Specials. Then came the overhauling of the force to bring it into line with Britain’s Ulsterization policy, which began in 1976 and forced the RUC to adapt to the long war of counter-terror. The Bennett Report changing interrogation procedures came out three years later. The mid-1980s saw the RUC taking on widespread loyalist protest and effectively subduing it. By the mid-1990s came the cease-fires and the birth of the peace process. In 1996, Flanagan at age 47 was already deputy chief constable when he became associated directly with reform, overseeing a wide-ranging review of the force. Entitled “A Fundamental Review of Policing,” it produced 189 recommendations for change to bring the RUC more into line with being a community-oriented service.
“It’s important to remember that of the 175 Patten recommendations, 150 came from the Flanagan review,” said Michael McGimpsey, an Ulster Unionist Party assembly member and government minister who admires Flanagan. “He carried a load of enormous change with little thanks.”
However, while moderate opinion is generally favorable toward Flanagan, there are those, especially in the Nationalist community, who express disappointment at the chief constable’s handling of the controversy over the Omagh bomb investigation. Alex Atwood, who sits on the Police Board as an SDLP representative, agrees that while under Flanagan there were “more changes more quickly than many would have thought possible,” in the end he fell foul of “the new balance of power” that exists between the chief constable and the new Police Board. The board intervened in the dispute between Flanagan and the ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, following her critical report on the RUC’s handling of the Omagh bomb investigation.
“For years the office of chief constable was all-powerful,” Atwood said. “Because of Patten, it no longer is.”
Atwood faults Flanagan for “choosing to stand with the Special Branch” after O’Loan heavily criticized the anti-terrorist unit for its failure to pass on information relating to a putative attack (which did not materialize) on Omagh on the day of the bombing. However, this loyalty has endeared him to his men.
“He was an excellent chief constable,” said a veteran of the force. “He kept the thing together. With a weak chief constable the RUC might’ve been disbanded.”