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RUC Taking politics out of policing in Northern Ireland

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

For years, Northern Ireland was one of Western Europe’s great anomalies, especially as regard to its police force. The Royal Ulster Constabulary was the only police force outside of Franco’s Spain which was seen as the instrument not only of state security but of a particular political party, the Ulster Unionist Party. It was the difficult task assigned Chris Patten and his commission, under the auspices of the Good Friday agreement, to remedy that anomaly.

Last week, the British government accepted the bulk of his report’s 175 suggested reforms as to how this might be achieved, including changing the name and composition of the force. The outraged Unionist reaction is just one reminder of how sensitive the issue of policing remains in Northern Ireland.

Under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, accepted by the Unionist leader, David Trimble, the policing commission’s task would be to design arrangements for a "police service that can enjoy widespread support from, and is seen as an integral part of, the community as a whole." To make the police force acceptable to the whole community meant, in effect, making it more acceptable to Catholics. And to do that meant addressing the anomalies created by a combination of Unionist policy and history.

Unionist policy in the new state of Northern Ireland was based upon the concept of loyalty to the British Crown. It was the insistence upon loyalty which gave the embattled Unionists comfort and security against a hostile nationalist Ireland. Therefore, unlike any other police force in the British Isles, RUC members had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Crown. This helped define the police not only as enforcers of law and order but in political terms as defenders of a particular political settlement favorable to Unionists — the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

With Patten, the British government has accepted the need to redraft the terms of that oath to reflect the changing nature of the terms under which Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. The new officers will pledge themselves not to the Crown but to "uphold fundamental human rights and accord equal respect to all individuals and to their traditions and beliefs." This recognizes that the nationalist tradition has now equal status in the new dispensation. It is a sort of quid pro quo for the fact that republicans, and nationalists as a whole, have acknowledged by signing up to the Good Friday agreement that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK based on the consent of the majority of its people. The new service must reflect the fact that consent has now replaced sovereign diktat as the basis for governance.

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Such reasoning also underlies the decision to accept Patten’s recommendation that the force should be renamed as the Police Service of Northern Ireland and that its symbols — Harp and Crown — should be placed side by side, reflecting their equal status. "Ulster," after, all was a geographical misnomer for Northern Ireland, based on an emotional need Unionists felt for a defensible homeland.

History as well as policy determined that other crucial and controversial aspect of the North’s policing problem: the RUC’s composition. At the beginning, in theory at least, Catholics were welcomed into the force. Indeed, one-third of the original 3,000 places in the new force were set aside for Catholics to reflect their overall percentage of the new state’s population. However, pressure from with the Unionist government soon helped put a brake on Catholic recruitment. As well, republican hostility to Catholics who joined the force was always a factor. It became a determining factor after 1969, with the formation of the Provisional IRA and the launching of its violent campaign against the security forces. Especially targeted were Catholic RUC men.

By the 1990s, around 8 percent of the force was Catholic, though Catholics by then represented between 40 and 43 percent of the North’s population. Comparisons were made with other minorities, such as blacks in the U.S., who in 1983 made up 13.1 percent of police officers, roughly commensurate with their overall proportion of the population. Of course, black police officers were not being targeted by paramilitary gunmen. But with the success of the cease-fires, the British government judged that the time has come to move to redress the North’s policing imbalance, which it has said is "essential to gaining widespread acceptability." It has endorsed a proposal for 50/50 recruitment of Protestants and Catholics. Theoretically, this should produce a force which is 40 percent Catholic by the year 2020.

These proposed changes, if enacted, would transform the nature of policing in the North and finally neutralize its political element. Once more, however, as with all previous proposals for meaningful police reform, they are dependent on the security situation. Political instability, and the continued existence of illegal, armed groups, will inevitably delay the day when they can be enacted.

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