By Anne Cadwallader and Patrick Markey
BELFAST — A week after Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson introduced the Patten reforms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the proposed changes have met with mixed reviews from across the province’s political divide.
Illustrating the sensitive nature of the policing issue, nationalists cautiously welcomed the reforms, while Unionist leaders and police officials quickly denounced the change in the RUC’s name as a disservice to its officers.
After a heated debate Monday in Northern Ireland’s new assembly, the Democratic Unionist Party led a motion to reject the policing reforms, which it said folded to terrorism and destroyed the RUC. The motion was passed by a vote of 50-42. Although the assembly has no authority over policing, its rejection of the proposals is being seen as a strong protest over policing changes.
During a rowdy session in the Commons last Wednesday, Mandelson, in his address, accepted most the major policing reforms while praising the RUC for the service’s courage and professionalism.
"In raising to the challenge, the RUC has inevitably, if unfairly, become identified more with one side of the community than the other," Mandelson said.
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"That is not a desirable state of affairs. The RUC itself is forward-looking and accepts the notion of change. It is eager to police a normal society in a normal professional way, but it is held back by the burden of history."
Mandelson said the reforms to the new service must keep in balance three interdependent considerations: representativeness, effectiveness and a respect for the sacrifices of the past. The Northern Ireland secretary said he agreed with most of the Patten report’s suggested changes, from the human rights issues to restructuring, composition and accountability.
But addressing the change in the RUC name and symbols, the Northern Ireland Secretary met with Tory backbench jeers and heckles from Unionist parliamentary members when he called for a new start.
"I understand exactly why serving and former officers, their families and indeed widows are proud of the RUC," he said. "The issue is whether a change in name, underlying a new start, is a necessary and indispensable part of attracting balance in recruits to the new police service.
"Of course, it is not the only barrier to recruitment. There has been at times disgraceful intimidation of nationalists who wished to join the RUC. But a change of name was in Patten’s view essential, and I agree."
Mandelson did not address the issues of what flag should fly from police stations and what symbols should be on the renamed service’s flag and badge. Mandelson did suggest, however, that the RUC’s recently awarded George Cross medal could be incorporated into the new symbol.
The Patten Report had stated that the union flag should no longer fly from police buildings and that the service’s symbols should be free from associations with Britain or the Republic. The new symbol will be left to the Police Board, subject to Mandelson’s approval.
Soon after Mandelson’s announcement, police representatives expressed their outrage that Mandelson had accepted a change in the RUC’s name. In an interview with the BBC, Chief Constable Sir Ronnie Flanagan said that while the force welcomed many of the reforms, changing the name had caused hurt among the ranks.
"No one should underestimate the great hurt that altering the title of the RUC will cause to my members, to past members, to injured members, to their families and to bereaved families," he said.
"We each mutually understand how much this means. It is not because it represents anything of a political nature. This is our brand in the policing world."
Ulster Unionist Leader David Trimble told the Commons that the British government had dishonored itself with the changes.
"Nothing this government says or does can dishonor the RUC and the men in it. This government can and does dishonor itself," he said.
Nationalist leaders welcomed the proposals, but the republican leadership still harbored doubts about how the Patten report had been implemented.
Sinn Fein spokesman Gerry Kelly said: "Obviously we need to see the legislation before making a definitive response. It must be remembered that the final judgment on these proposals will be whether or not young nationalists will want or be able to join the policing service."
Human rights groups and nationalist political parties were also concerned after parts of the Patten Report on policing were left out of the Mandelson’s Commons speech.
Mandelson shelved Patten’s plan to permit district police partnerships to buy additional services. Unionists had said they feared this would lead to security firms linked to paramilitary organizations becoming involved in nationalist areas where Sinn Fein is strong.
The same partnerships will no longer carry the name "board" in their title. The change is to signal that the partnerships will have no executive role in policing. They will have only a consultative role in monitoring local police performance.