Ulster Cops: A New Beginning?

Protestants and Catholics must work together to transform Northern Ireland's police into a force for community reconciliation, the lead author of an ambitious reform package said Thursday

Former Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten stressed that his commission's report titled A New Beginning, which offers 175 proposals that are certain to stir emotions among both Protestants and Catholics, would not work without cross-community support.

Â"If this is not the way forward, I simply do not know what is,Â" said Patten, who called his 15-month mission Â"the most difficult and grueling job I have ever done.Â"

Patten's eight-member commission, including police and human rights experts from the United States and Canada, sought to build Catholic support for the predominantly Protestant police in line with a key goal contained in last year's Good Friday peace accord.

Among its most controversial proposals is for the highly militarized Royal Ulster Constabulary to be renamed the Northern Ireland Police Service and to abandon its overtly British symbols.

The present name is synonymous with Northern Ireland's foundation in the 1920s as a Protestant-majority state under British rule, and long despised by many Catholics.

The report recommends that the 13,000-strong force -- 92 percent Protestant -- should be reduced gradually to 7,500 members so long as the current cease-fires by the Irish Republican Army and outlawed anti-Catholic paramilitary groups hold. The force's 3,000-member reserve would be the first to be axed.

Simultaneously, a new civilian agency would seek recruits on a 50-50 Protestant-Catholic basis in a plan to gradually make the force reflect Northern Irish society, which is roughly 55 percent Protestant and 40 percent Catholic.

Patten said the goal was to have a 30 percent Catholic force within 10 years.

Patten said he understood that many proposals would be difficult for Protestants, who largely support the police for having defended the state against IRA terror for the past three decades. The police have lost 302 members to the IRA and Protestant extremists since conflict started in 1969.

Â"There is pain in what we are saying ... but there is a gain that more than makes up for that,Â" he said.

But the major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, condemned Patten's proposals to change the police force's name and badge -- a British crown atop an Irish harp -- as Â"a gratuitous insultÂ" to officers past and present.

Â"The only change that is really needed is to have many more Catholics serving the community in the police,Â" the Ulster Unionists said in a statement. Â"All that is needed to achieve that is an end to (IRA) intimidation.Â"

Patten said he hoped the report would spur Catholic church and political leaders to Â"get off the fenceÂ" and urge young Catholics to join the police.

And Seamus Mallon, deputy leadeof the major Catholic-supported party, the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, said he would Â"try to ensure that these recommendations become reality.Â"

The report fell far short of demands by Sinn Fein, the IRA's political ally, which had demanded the total abolition of the RUC.

Written by Shawn Pogatchnik
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