By Patrick Markey
As Britain’s controversial policing bill winds its way through the House of Commons, a member of the Patten Commission warned that diluting the commission’s recommendations on RUC reform could damage prospects for peace.
Speaking on Friday in New York, Dr. Gerald Lynch said the Patten Commission’s suggestions on reforming the RUC should not be watered down by the upcoming British government policing legislation.
"After the government apparently said they were going to accept the Patten Commission, now it looks like they are going to modify it significantly, and there is a big concern that we will be back to square one," Lynch said.
"What we fear is if this bill goes through in such a way that the IRA withdraws its offer . . . then we are back to a very difficult situation," he told a luncheon for the National Committee on American Foreign Policy. "To change it now when it has been so connected . . . I fear for the consequences."
President of New York’s Jay John College of Criminal Justice, Lynch is also one of the eight members of the independent Patten Commission on policing, named after its head, former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten.
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Reforms to the RUC, one of the most controversial aspects of the 1998 Good Friday agreement peace deal, have become the latest stumbling block between the Northern Ireland’s unionist and nationalist parties.
A Patten Commission report suggested a wide range of changes to take politics out of policing and make the force acceptable to both communities. But nationalists believe the British government has cut into the Patten recommendations in the parliamentary bill now working through the House of Commons.
Patten recommended 175 changes, some of which critics believe have been adjusted or dropped out the legislation to draw the Ulster Unionist Party back into government with Sinn Fein, the political ally of the IRA.
Unionist leaders have also criticized the Patten recommendations for changes in the RUC’s name and badge, which they see as an assault on their cultural identity.
A fledgling power-sharing government between unionist and nationalist parties was only reinstituted earlier this week after months of stalemate over the disarming of paramilitary groups. Although Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams welcomed the move by Unionists to reenter government, he also warned that Patten’s policing report must be implemented as a whole.
The SDLP have also expressed concern over the policing bill. The party’s deputy leader and deputy leader of the new executive, Seamus Mallon, has raised 44 points of concern over the bill, which the party says has diluted the original Patten reforms.
Lynch said the Patten report had been heralded as a model for policing in a divided society by international policing agencies. But the report would be judged by whether nationalist leaders would pitch the new police service to their communities, he said.
"Both sides really want a professional police force that can be able to attract and maintain the support of both positions, that is the bottom line," he said.
Questioned on whether the bill would lead to an accountable police agency, Lynch said that was unlikely with changes to commission’s suggestions on the investigative powers of the new cross-community policing board and the ombudsman post.
"There is absolutely no way you can make those changes and have an acceptable police [force]. It’s absolutely against what was recommended," Lynch said. "We wanted a fully accountable police service, accountable to the whole community."