By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN – The former British Conservative Party chairman Chris Patten, who as governor of Hong Kong handed the colony back to the Chinese last July, has accepted an invitation to head the independent commission on the future of the RUC.
The new commission is a key element in the Good Friday peace deal and will be a another diplomatic minefield for Patten, 53, with Unionists wanting the force left virtually untouched and Republicans wanting it disbanded.
British Northern Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam confirmed Tuesday that Patten, a Catholic and former junior minister at Stormont when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, has accepted the position.
The offer has been welcomed by the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP.
The commission will be not be set up unless there is a “yes” vote to the peace proposals when voters go the polls in the historic joint referenda on agreement North and South on May 22.
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The future of the RUC, which is overwhelmingly Protestant, was a crucial issue in the final marathon session of the talks in Belfast.
The final peace deal document says the agreement provides an opportunity for a new beginning to policing in the North with a force representative of the community as a whole, which, in a peaceful environment, should be routinely unarmed.
The commission, which is required to report no later than the summer of 1999, will make recommendations to ensure a “fair and impartial system of justice” that will deliver justice efficiently and effectively and have the confidence of all the community.
The commission will look at proposals on the composition of the RUC, it’s management, resources, recruitment, training, culture, cooperation with the Gardai, and “ethos and symbols” within the force.
The agreement calls for “a professional, impartial force free of all political control and answerable to the community.”
There will also be a parallel, wide-ranging review of the criminal justice system.
RUC Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan warned against undermining the force, saying it had been the “bulwark between anarchy and disorder.”
In an interview with the London Daily Telegraph, he said the new commission would enable his officers to defend themselves against the “bombardment of propaganda” they had faced in recent years.
He said there was unease in the force since the peace agreement was signed and described suggestions of a name change as amounting to “tokenism.”
A medieval history graduate from Oxford, Patten earned a lot of plaudits for his period as the 28th and last governor of Hong Kong and famously cried at the final handover ceremony last year.
He brought a more easy-going approach to the stuffy position of governor and local media were fascinated by his three daughters.
He has recently been embroiled in controversy when he left his publishers, HarperCollins, owned by Australian media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, amid allegations of censorship of his memoirs, “East and West.”
A close friend of former British Premier John Major, he has also been mentioned as a possible future Conservative leader or as the new lord mayor of London when the job is revamped.
As the Conservative’s director of Elections in 1992, he was credited with being one of the main architects of Major’s return to power but in the process he lost his own seat and his political ambitions were set back.
Since the Hong Kong handover, he had divided his time between homes in British and France and has been pressing to get the UK’s animal quarantine regulations changed as he has refused to put his beloved dogs, Whiskey and Soda, into kennels for six months.