Category: Archive

Time to stand back, revisit Patten’s radical vision

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Adam Ingram. Minister of State in Northern Ireland

As the minister responsible for steering the bill which implements the Patten report on policing in Northern Ireland through the House of Commons — including many hours of line-by-line scrutiny — I know that the sheer complexity of the legislation can obscure the wider picture. But I appreciate the detailed criticisms as a valuable contribution to the process of refining the bill.

I understand the passion generated on all sides. I welcome constructive criticism and I do not ignore well-argued objections. The bill has already changed substantially during the committee stage in the House of Commons and more changes will follow in the House of Lords Committee Stage in September.

Let me describe the bill as it currently stands.

Northern Ireland will have a policing service with a degree of accountability, a commitment to human rights, and a level of community involvement unparalleled in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland. The new service will match or exceed the best international policing structures, including those in the United States.

Critics of the bill focus on a few areas of dispute. They are unwilling to recognize the breadth of change introduced. For example, the creation of a new Policing Board with powers unparalleled in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland. A board which will include, as of right, members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, including the SDLP and Sinn Fein.

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Twenty-six new District Policing Partnerships, including councilors from all of the political parties, will play a crucial role in holding the police to account at local level and in developing policing plans to meet local needs.

A code of ethics applying to all officers and a new police oath will reinforce the commitment to human rights, in full compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The root-and-branch restructuring of the police service, the new provisions for training, and the radical approach to community policing will be a model for police services worldwide.

A system for dealing with complaints which is completely independent of the police has been placed in the hands of a powerful new ombudsman. Again these arrangements are unknown elsewhere in the UK or the Republic of Ireland.

At present, the vast majority of RUC officers are Protestant. In order to ensure an appropriate balance of Catholics and Protestants in the new service, the government will implement a 50:50 recruitment scheme even more radical than that recommended by the Patten Report. We have committed ourselves to this in the face of sustained criticism that it is discriminatory and contrary to EU law.

Perhaps the most emotive issue has been the name of the new police service. We have been persuaded by the strength of argument in the Patten report and accept that the name must change, and change it will, to the "Police Service of Northern Ireland."

The front page of the Irish Times recently commented that the RUC name will pass into history. However, as Patten recognized, the sensitivities of those who cherish the history of a police service which has sacrificed so much and earned our gratitude and respect must be recognized.

The implementation of all these changes will be overseen by Tom Constantine, the recently retired director of the Drug Enforcement Administration and former chief of police for New York State. As oversight commissioner, he will publish regular reports to give public reassurance and to validate the changes. He has already said that Northern Ireland could eventually become a "hallmark in policing throughout the world."

This is the radical new beginning for the police service which some seem to have missed. It tends to be ignored by those who focus on the few Patten recommendations — a handful out of the original 175 — which are the subject of continuing discussion.

The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, and the prime minister, Tony Blair, discussed the Police Bill when they met earlier last week. A relatively small number of outstanding issues remain. They will be resolved in the months ahead, before the bill becomes law.

In the meantime, I hope that all sides in this debate will take the opportunity of the summer break to reflect on the radical nature of the bill’s proposals. Above all, instead of concentrating purely on their own areas of dissatisfaction, I hope they will spend some time reflecting on the difficulties of those who disagree with them.

The SDLP rightly comments that nationalists have taken risks. They must surely appreciate that unionists have also taken risks. And both will have to take further risks if the Good Friday agreement is to be fully implemented.

There is a degree of pain to be borne by everyone as a result of the Good Friday agreement.

If both traditions in Northern Ireland can appreciate the pain inflicted by their demands in relation to policing, then we will have gone a long way to achieving the goal shared by the two governments and by Patten himself: "a police service that can enjoy widespread support from, and is seen as an integral part of, the whole community."

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