RUC will cease to exist as new structures replace it

The recommendations of the Independent Commission on Policing under the chairmanship of Mr Chris Patten are likely to mark a …

The recommendations of the Independent Commission on Policing under the chairmanship of Mr Chris Patten are likely to mark a historic departure in policing. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, established 76 years ago in the aftermath of Partition, will cease to exist and will be replaced by entirely new policing structures accountable to and more reflective of the community it serves.

In 1922 the British government's stated intention in setting up the new police force in Northern Ireland was that a third of its members would be Catholic. The initial intake into the new force included 541 Catholic and 2,449 Protestant officers who had served in the Royal Irish Constabulary.

However, most of the Catholic RIC officers subsequently retired or resigned and were replaced in the main by Protestants.

From about five years after its creation, the RUC became a predominantly Protestant force and enjoyed little sympathy or support among the Catholic population. From its early days the new force also became strongly associated with the Unionist government and establishment. Within three years of its creation, the first RUC Orange Lodge was set up.

Despite efforts to attract more Catholic members, the RUC has never been able to reduce the religious imbalance. Just under 8 per cent of the 8,500-strong regular force is Catholic. There is an even lower Catholic representation in the 4,300-strong RUC Reserve.

The Patten Commission report, in historical terms, will rank alongside the developments in 1922 when the 86-year-old RIC was disbanded and the new Civic Guards (now An Garda Siochana) and RUC were set up to police the separate jurisdictional entities.

The last major commission on policing in Northern Ireland, under the chairmanship of Lord Hunt in 1969, saw the disbandment of the auxiliary policing force in the North, the Ulster Special Constabulary, better known as the "B" Specials.

This disbandment of the "B" Specials, an entirely Protestant force widely disliked and distrusted by nationalists, led to widespread rioting in loyalist areas and the death of the first RUC officer to be killed in the Troubles - Constable Victor Arbuckle was shot dead by gunmen on the Shankill Road in Belfast.

The new police force for the North, envisaged in the preliminary drafts drawn up by the Patten Commission, will initially draw on the strengths of the existing force but will gradually come to more closely reflect and be accountable to the communities in which it operates.

All symbols of loyalism, inherent in the existing force's name and in the traditions of flying the Union flag and displaying pictures of Queen Elizabeth in station foyers, will be lost. The new force will be designed to be seen as a strictly non-partisan, modern, professional force. Its proposed new title will be the Northern Ireland Police Service.

The new organisation, it is understood, will not be a single unitary force, as the RUC is. It is likely there will be greater "regionalisation" with maybe three or four forces - each accountable to a local police authority. This actually reflects the pattern of policing in Britain, where there are 52 regional constabularies, each accountable to a local police authority.

This pattern, common throughout the Western world, is also unlike the structure in the Republic, where there is a single, unitary police force with no police authority to act as a buffer between it and government. The Garda Siochana remains directly accountable to government through the Department of Justice, something which has at times been contentious. (The RUC has the Northern Ireland Police Authority to act between it and the Northern Ireland Office.)

Most Western countries have more than one police force and one type of police officer. Police have different powers and the proposals in the Patten Commission might also include the creation of new types of police with reduced security functions. This might allow the entry into the new force of former paramilitaries who are interested in joining in the new policing structures. Such a development would help stop the punishment attacks on suspected law-breakers in areas where paramilitaries hold sway.

The issue of regionalisation, along with the introduction of new policing functions, raises a number of issues which are likely to be divisive.

Nationalists are likely to welcome the creation of a police service whose membership more closely reflects the makeup of their community. The situation now allows for the existence of a predominantly Protestant service working in predominantly Catholic communities, particularly in the area west of the river Bann.

The benefits of having a police force which is representative of the local community and under the control of a local authority are that it would be accepted by the local Catholic community and would be a much more effective policing force.

The concern among some police and government officials is that regionalisation could lead to a breakdown in effective policing, with locally-recruited police disinclined to take action against republican elements and viewed with suspicion by Protestants.

To overcome these problems, it is expected the commission will recommend that for the first three to five years the police force should actually be expanded, by as much as 4,000 members.

This would allow what is termed an "entry strategy" to allow the recruitment of more Catholics and more women - the latter are as underrepresented in the RUC as they are in the Garda Siochana. During the same period there would be an "exit strategy" for older officers who would be eligible for what will be termed "generous" early retirement awards.

Provision is already being put in place to help find jobs for former RUC members. They will be awarded a medal to record their RUC service.

A primary concern of both the commission and governments is that the transitional period to the establishment of the new force will not lead to serious security problems. The RUC is the primary security structure in Northern Ireland and is responsible for a uniquely wide variety of functions from crowd control up to advanced anti-terrorist operations. Its role in policing the loyalist disorder during this year's Drumcree standoff won praise from both governments.

There are concerns that the proposals of the sort now under consideration in the commission, which of course are not due for publication until late next spring, could precipitate difficulties in the force, with threats of widespread retirements and even industrial action.

Any problems of this kind, combined with widespread loyalist disorder like that surrounding the Drumcree stand-offs, could cause a security crisis in the North.

To offset any such breakdown in policing it is expected the commission will provide for a transitional period where the police force is actually enlarged and for highly attractive terms for those RUC officers seeking to leave.