By Jim Smith
NEWTON, Mass. — Patten Commission member Kathleen O’Toole of South Boston is urging groups and individuals concerned about the future of law enforcement in Northern Ireland to make their views known.
"I’m encouraging everyone with something to offer to make a submission to the commission," she said recently in an interview at her office at the Newton campus of Boston College, where she now serves as executive director of the B.C. Alumni Association.
The independent Commission on Policing for Northern Ireland, headed by Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, is a product of the Good Friday peace agreement and is charged with issuing recommendations by the end of next summer about how to "ensure that policing arrangements, including composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbol, are such that in a new approach, Northern Ireland has a police service that can enjoy widespread support from, and is seen as an integral part of, the community as a whole."
An initial deadline of Sept. 15 for submissions to the commission has been extended indefinitely in order to allow more groups and individuals to make their opinions known. More than 2,000 submissions have already been received, ranging from multi-page documents to letters from concerned individuals.
"My intention is to carefully ready every one of the submissions," she said. "Right now we’re in the information-gathering phase of our work, educating ourselves, reading a tremendous amount of material and listening to as many people we can."
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Public meetings throughout the North have begun, geared toward soliciting constructive recommendations for change.
"I’ve been very impressed by the people — how informed and educated they are," she said. "Once we’ve reviewed as much information we can, there’ll be an enormous amount of deliberation before we make our final recommendations."
The commission was formed early in June under a cloud of controversy, with the Irish government expressing disappointment that only one of its 10 nominees, Dr. Gerald Lynch, president of New York’s John Jay College, was selected to the eight-member body. The appointment of O’Toole, who had been recommended by British officials, also raised some eyebrows within the nationalist community when it was learned that she had served as a training adviser to public officials in Northern Ireland and had met with Royal Ulster Constabulary officers last year in her capacity as Massachusetts Secretary of Public Safety.
Concerns about a perceived pro-RUC bias were dispelled somewhat after the Echo reported in June that O’Toole had also met last year with members of Peace Watch Ireland and the Garvaghy Road Residents Group, who hold highly critical views of the RUC. Moreover, public officials have praised O’Toole as a very talented administrator with a reputation for fairness and integrity, qualities that O’Toole also sees in her fellow commission members.
"This is a fiercely independent, very principled group of people," she said. "We’ll likely bring different perspectives to the table, but we have a lot of respect for one another."
Other members on the panel besides O’Toole, Patten and Lynch are Maurice Hayes, the former Northern Ireland ombudsman; Lucy Woods, head of British Telecom in Northern Ireland; Clifford Sheering, a Canadian criminologist; Sir John Smith, former deputy commissioner of the metropolitan Police in London, and Peter Smith, Belfast lawyer and former honorary secretary of the Ulster Unionist Party.
Among the core issues with that the panel will grapple over the next eight or nine months is that of shaping a force that will be acceptable to the community as a whole. At present, the 13,000-member RUC is 93 percent Protestant. Catholics, many of whom regard the RUC with mistrust and hostility, make up about 43 percent of the Northern Ireland population. Parameters around downsizing, training, and recruitment of Catholics will likely be focal points of discussion during deliberations in the months to come.
Regarding implementation of the commission’s recommendations, O’Toole said that the political leaders will be responsible for acting on the commission’s findings and proposals.
"All we can do is submit the report, but I wouldn’t have taken on this enormous task if I didn’t think our work would have a major impact," she said.
Consistent with her open-door administrative style, O’Toole has also met with a number of Irish-American leaders in recent weeks, including David Burke of the AOH, who presented her with RUC-related material and offered his suggestions.
"Irish Americans made a tremendous contribution to the peace proceeds in Northern Ireland, and they should be given an opportunity to contribute to this process as well," she said. "I welcome input from anyone who has a constructive contribution to make. t the end of the day, the commission’s report will hopefully be a report of the people."
O’Toole said that groups and concerned citizens can make submissions to the Independent Policing Commission at Interpoint, 20-24 York St. Belfast BT15, 1AQ; fax 011-44-1232-258843.
Persons wishing to contact O’Toole directly can reach her at the Boston College Alumni Office, 825 Centre St., Newton, MA 02158; (617) 552-4700.