Reforming the RUC


One issue only ought to dominate the debate in the North over policing structures, and that is how to make them acceptable across the community. The issue is not whether substantial change in current methods, nomenclature and symbols of the RUC will effectively condemn the many honest men and women who have always formed the majority of the force. Their professionalism and dedication are in contrast with the documented cases of violence and cover up. But there is a strange blinkered mentality in laying too much stress on the morale of present members at the expense of building something new and more demonstrably open which will inevitably develop a more positive morale of its own.

It is relevant to ask which is likely to be the better force to serve in one that continues to meet suspicion, if not outright rejection, in some areas where its writ supposedly runs, or one which is acknowledged to be performing a vital and uncontroversial task? The predictable reactions to the report yesterday by the Northern Ireland Police Authority, making suggestions for change, reveal the extent to which the force is at the centre of politics rather than being the purely functional body which it ought to be. For Mr Ken Maginnis, the Ulster Unionist spokesman on security, the report was "a significant endorsement" bye society of the RUC's activities. But this misses the point that endorsement largely follows political lines.

Mr Gerry Adams is right in arguing that the "starting point" of any review must be the criticisms coming from nationalists. That is self evident because, if it were only a question of what the unionists thought, no review would be necessary. It is important that the political element in the process of devising a force that will be acceptable throughout the community should be recognised. The aim, on the other hand, will be perhaps paradoxically to create a body which is completely outside politics.

The process will be a stringent test of the meaningfulness of the commitment to equality of esteem for the two traditions in the North. There is no reason why a police force should be regarded as an embodiment of a concept of the state as opposed to representing and enforcing the law which holds a society together. This means that issues which the NIPA appeared to find difficulty in dealing with such as flying the union flag over police stations ought to be approached in the spirit that, since it has nothing to do with the enforcement of the law, it can be dispensed with. The failure to recognise what is substantial and what is irrelevant for this purpose has dogged the RUC since its formation, on the model of its predecessor, the RIC, more than 70 years ago.

Not unnaturally, the retention of the old symbolism in the NIPA's recommendations will overshadow more helpful suggestions such as the separation of local policing issues from the investigation of major crime, the creation of a neutral working environment for officers, the recruitment of more women and the change in the oath. Intransigence on the divisive questions which are irrelevant from a functioning point of view, led to the expulsion from the NIPA of its chairman, Mr David Cook, and Mr Chris Ryder because they recognised the need for fundamental symbolic change. Their contribution would have kept the main objective of reform clearly in view.