By Patrick Markey
BELFAST — When Queen Elizabeth II visited Northern Ireland last week to present Britain’s highest civilian award to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, it was seen by many as the closing chapter in the force’s controversial history.
The award recognized the courage the Northern Ireland police force had shown protecting the troubled province even as the British government moved to implement the broad reforms set out in the Patten report on policing.
The queen’s visit came amid a bitter row over the RUC’s name, its symbols and its role in policing a more peaceful society.
Last Wednesday’s short ceremony awarded the George Cross in recognition of the 302 RUC officers who lost their lives in the line of duty in the last 30 years. Thousands more have been injured in bomb attacks or shootings that often targeted them for the uniform that they wore.
Security was tight in Belfast as the queen arrived in the city’s Hillsborough Castle, where she was greeted by ranks of RUC bottle-green uniforms. As a constant drizzle drenched the audience, she presented to medal to wheelchair-bound Constable Paul Slaine, who lost both his legs in an IRA rocket attack in Newry in 1992.
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"I salute your courage and your sense of duty. I admire your determination to maintain the rule of law," the queen said.
But for many officers, pride mingled with sorrow over lost colleagues and bittersweet concerns over an uncertain future.
Under the Good Friday agreement, former Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten made sweeping recommendations for change in order to take the politics out of policing. Among the 175 proposals in Patten’s report were changing the RUC’s title to the more neutral Police Service of Northern Ireland, changing in the royal symbols and badge, achieving 50-50 Catholic-Protestant recruitment, creating independent oversight bodies and a scaling back of the ranks.
While they support many of the changes, the Unionist community has called on the British government to keep the RUC’s name and symbols. The Ulster Unionist Party has linked the RUC name change to the re-establishment of Northern Ireland’s fledgling power-sharing government, which was suspended in February after disagreements over paramilitary weapons.
Many RUC officers recognize the need for more Catholic recruitment, more community-based policing and other reforms, said Alan Burnside, a spokesman for the Police Federation, which represents 11,000 officers.
"The real objection is to the change of name," Burnside said. "They are bewildered as to why a badge that embraces Irish and British culture should be disowned."
The current badge combines a harp, and a spray of Shamrock topped by a crown.
Iona Meyers, who lost her husband when the IRA shot him to death on his way back to Queens Street RUC station 10 years ago, said the George Cross was a great honor. But although she believed the RUC should become more representative, many widows still had little stomach for changing the RUC title.
"The name was what our husbands lived for and in many cases died in uniform for. It’s a fitting memorial to them. We are very proud of that," she said. "Remember, for many years the RUC was the thin green line here."
For that reason, Meyers and others believe if the RUC name is changed the George Cross should not be passed over to the new police service.
The reform proposals have also met with mixed reaction from the nationalist community.
Sinn Fein has said it will reserve judgment until further details emerge. Most people in heavily nationalist areas like West and North Belfast believe the RUC is at best unrepresentative and at worst abusive and bigoted. Sinn Fein had originally called for the RUC to be disbanded and replaced with an unarmed policing service.
"People need to know first and foremost that this is a new beginning, that they are not being sold a repackaged RUC," Bairbre de Brun, a Sinn Fein representative told the BBC.
In the past the RUC has come under fire from human rights organizations for some of its practices, including use of plastic bullets and abuses against people in custody. For families who say their relatives were killed by the RUC, the award of George Cross opens more emotive questions.
Sam McLornan lost his father to a police bullet and Jim McCabe’s wife, Nora, was killed by an RUC plastic baton round. As part of Relative for Justice group, both men have criticized the award of the George Cross to what they see as a discredited police force.
"Our relatives were completely innocent of any crimes at the time of their shootings," McCabe said. "Those who did this have never been brought to book. This says it’s OK to kill innocent people."
The group has called for the British government and the police service to recognize their relatives’ deaths as they have other victims of the Troubles.
"There has never been an apology and an acceptance of the wrong that was done," McLornan said.
On poster plastered on a brick wall on the nationalist Falls Road area indicates how far the policing issue has yet to come. Under a wolf in an RUC cap a slogan reads: "The sheep in wolf’s clothing — Coming soon to RUC TV."