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RUC A new beginning to policing in the North

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter Mandelson

On Oct. 6, 1998 Frankie O’Reilly died a month after being injured by a blast bomb thrown by a loyalist mob in Portadown.

He was a Catholic, a husband and a father of two young children. He was also a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and was on duty when he was fatally wounded.

He was the 302nd and, we fervently hope, last member of the RUC to be murdered. Thousands more have been injured.

Last Wednesday, I announced my decision to implement the recommendations of the Patten Report, designed to bring about a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland, as required in the Good Friday agreement.

I have set in train a series of fundamental reforms which will:

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€ place human rights at the very heart of policing and change the oath taken by police officers on appointment to reflect this new emphasis;

€ put in place a new recruitment scheme, which will admit Protestants and Catholics on a 50:50 basis, to redress the current imbalance and make the police service representative of the whole community in Northern Ireland.

€ put in place new oversight and accountability arrangements for the police service;

€ put in place new arrangements for consultation between the police and local communities.

To signal this fresh start I will change the name from Royal Ulster Constabulary to Police Service of Northern Ireland. It is a title with which I hope everyone will be able to identify. A new badge will also be introduced with the name change.

When it was published in September last year, the Patten Report, and in particular its recommendation that the name and symbols of the RUC be changed, provoked great hurt in the police family. To those who had lost family and friends and those who had served alongside murdered colleagues, it caused terrible pain. To be honest, I share that hurt.

Their sense of hurt and loss is genuine and we must respect it. The courage of the RUC in the face of such sacrifice was immense and we must salute it.

In a country numbed to terrible violence, the title helped people make sense of otherwise senseless deaths. The name of the RUC for the bereaved families underlined the reason why their loved ones served and died in the force: to uphold the principles of democracy in the face of terror. It gave a sense of community to those who were left behind.

But it was a force that some nationalist felt unable to support, a community they could not belong to. It bore a name of which they felt no ownership.

The result is the police force that we have today a police force distrusted by many nationalists, a force in which, despite real efforts by the RUC itself, Protestants outnumber Catholics by a ratio of nine to one.

That situation is simply not sustainable. It offends our sense of fairness. It has thwarted our best efforts to heal divided communities. And it has prevented the RUC from doing what the vast majority of its members most want to do: provide a normal policing service for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Reform of policing is not a constitutional or a party-political issue. Much as we all want to see full implementation of the Good Friday agreement — and that means an early start to decommissioning — policing is not a card on that table.

I have been influenced only by my desire to seize this opportunity to give Northern Ireland a police service that is a model of excellence and by my urgent priority to make the police service representative of the whole community in Northern Ireland.

I considered each recommendation on its merits and my decisions were guided by a simple test: whether they would contribute to a more effective, more representative police service.

These are radical steps. They will require an enormous legislative and administrative effort, which I have already set in motion. They will demand sustained financial investment, which I am committed to providing.

In a democratic society a government can only proceed with the agreement of a majority of the people it serves. So, if we are to succeed, if we are to grant the nationalists’ simple wish for a police service to which they can freely owe allegiance, we will need support.

Our efforts to drive change must be matched by a commitment in the nationalist community to give this new police service a chance.

I have received the strongest support from the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who has said, "We are reaching a time when people can have confidence in the reformed force." He called for nationalists to put their names forward "in great numbers" when our new recruitment scheme begins, a call that I emphatically endorse.

But I do not want bright young Catholics to have to take my word for it that they can have a rewarding career in the police. I want them to hear it from leaders of their own community. I want them to see their peers in the police service as final proof that this program of reform is beginning to deliver real change on the ground.

If this is to work, the RUC and unionists must embrace change, even if that change is painful. In return, intimidation of Catholics who wish to join the police must stop. Nationalists and republicans must swing behind the new police service. No one, and no organization, can be immune from the changes that the Good Friday agreement made inevitable. And that applies to paramilitaries as well as others.

We have embarked on a process that will change Northern Ireland almost as much as it will change the police service. For the way in which we uphold law and order is a litmus test of our society. In the past policing in Northern Ireland has been the victim of wider political failure. With full implementation of my program of reform it can be the emblem of the new Northern Ireland.

We can make the vision of the Good Friday agreement a reality — a police service drawn from, and welcome in, every corner of Northern Ireland.

(The writer is Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland.)

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