Religion of Patten commission members raised

Tue, Dec 1, 1998, 00:00

Members of the Patten commission on policing got a tough grilling when they went into the unionist heartland of Ballymena in north Antrim last night.

Trenchant unionist speakers insisted there must be no changes to the force. Many nationalist speakers were heckled for urging change, and one man questioned whether the commission was truly independent when its chairman, Mr Chris Patten, was a Catholic.

Most of the speakers, whether unionist or nationalist, focused on the political dimension to policing, although a number of people, including some nationalists, said the main concentration should be on having more community police officers on the beat to deal with Ballymena's growing drugs problem and other "ordinary" crime.

Mr Ian Paisley jnr said Mr Patten should issue a statement saying the RUC will not be reconstituted and reject the proposal on the future of policing which Sinn Fein made to the commission earlier in Belfast yesterday.

Mr William Wright said two of the three commission members attending last night's public meeting, Mr Patten and former Northern Ireland ombudsman Dr Maurice Hayes, were Catholics. He wondered if a third member of the commission at the meeting last night, American criminologist Dr Gerard Lynch, might also be a Catholic. Mr Wright wanted assurances that these commission members would not be influenced by their religious views.

He was very suspicious of the commission's true intention. "I honestly believe that good honest people fear this commission more than they fear the IRA through 30 years of violence," said Mr Wright.

Mr Ray Bonnar, a local businessman, said the RUC had served the community well against "one of the most of the most efficient, wicked and evil terrorist organisations in the world". He was opposed to any name change. "We don't want a Northern Ireland Police Service. We want a northern Ireland police service that is called the Royal Ulster Constabulary", Mr Bonner said to applause.

Mr Sean Farren, an SDLP Assembly member for North Antrim, said it was a reality that a section of the community had difficulties with the RUC. A police service was required that would win the support of both sections of the community. The SDLP favoured a regionalisation of the police service and a change to its current ethos. Police stations "should be free from the sense that one section of the community is excluded from them," he added.

One man said he feared the commission would disband the RUC, which would leave the community "open to wholesale murder and slaughter". The people would once again be helpless as they were when the B Specials were disbanded almost 30 years ago, he added.

Another speaker said he knew of one police station in Antrim where police uniforms were sent with the name "Northern Ireland Police Service" emblazoned on the sleeves.

Mr Declan O'Loan, a local SDLP councillor, was loudly heckled. Several unionists in the audience were particularly annoyed when Mr O'Loan said the loyalist picket of the Catholic Church at Harryville represented a "serious breakdown in our society".

Mr O'Loan added: "We have all grown very accustomed to a police service which in certain key ways reflects the culture and political outlook of one section of our community. I would ask everyone to recognise that we will all gain when we have a police service that really represents the whole community."

Mr Maurice Mills, a local unionist councillor, said the RUC was not a symbol of the state but a symbol of democracy and justice.