Patten and the Government's Police Bill: What Do You Think?

5 October 2000

Article published in the Belfast News Letter (4 Oct 2000) and the the Irish News (5 Oct 2000)

It looks like high noon again: another stand-off in the peace process. The Government says its Police Bill implements the Patten Report. Others see a great difference between the two. Here we outline some of the issues.
As always we ask:


1. Continuity with the Past
A. Symbols

  • The Patten Report said the name of the police should be changed to the `Northern Ireland Police Service'. There should be a new badge and symbols not associated with the British or Irish states. The Union flag should not be flown  from police buildings. Police memorials should be retained in buildings.
  • Under the Government's bill `The Body of Constables known as the RUC shall continue in being as THE POLICE SERVICE OF NORTHERN IRELAND (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary)'.

    Unionist views:

  • Changing the name would be an insult to the 302 RUC members who were murdered, to the thousands injured by  terrorists, and to their families.
  • The Agreement accepted that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK as long as the majority, North and South, so chose. The police force will therefore remain British and its symbols should recognise this.
  • Many working-class Unionists have no great love for the RUC but they would see a name change as a defeat for Unionists and another victory for Nationalists.
  • Patten was asked to come up with a police service acceptable to the whole community. He has forgotten about Unionists.

    Nationalist/Republican views

  • The name has to change. To fail in this would suggest continuity with the past. We suffered too much from the RUC. There has to be new beginning.
  • The people are both Irish and British. The symbols of the police have to reflect this reality.
  • Patten was a compromise reached by an independent commission after extensive consultation. We accepted it – with difficulty – for the sake of peace. We can't be expected to compromise further on what is already a compromise.

    B. Recruiting
    Patten recommended an equal number of Protestants and Catholics be drawn from a pool of recruits who have met a required standard.

  • Many Unionists see this as discriminatory. Many Nationalists might agree but then ask: by what other means will the proportion of Catholics in the police be increased within ten years?

    2. Operational Issues
    A. Accountability
    Patten recommended setting up a new Police Board with increased powers. Some of these would be:

  • The Secretary of State would no longer be able to issue guide lines to the police about their activity.
  • The Chief Constable would have to fulfil the plan drawn up by the new Police Board.
  • After any incident the new Police Board could require the Chief Constable to show how police performance fitted in with the Board's plan.
  • The Board could require the Chief Constable to respond to a request for a report. The Chief Constable could refuse only on grounds such as national security. If the Board and the Chief Constable disagreed about the need for a report the Chief Constable could ask the Secretary of State to make a decision. Under the Government's police bill:
  • The Secretary of State sets objectives for policing and the new Police Board have to make their own objectives fit in with these.
  • The Chief Constable draws up an annual policing plan which he or she submits to the Police Board for approval, but  the Board must consult the Secretary of State before publishing it.
  • The Secretary of State must sets police priorities for a 3-5 year period. If he or she is unhappy with the way the Board  fulfills their duties he or she can direct them to take appropriate action.
  • The Secretary of State can issue codes of practice to the Board and oblige the Board to follow these.
  • The Chief Constable can refuse to give a report to the Board on wider grounds than under Patten.

    Under Patten the new Police Board could set up inquiries into police conduct.
    Under the Government's Police Bill:

  • The Secretary of State can block the new Police Board from setting up an inquiry if the incident in question took before it was set up, or if the Secretary of State believes it will not serve a useful purpose.
  • The Secretary of State has to approve the person appointed to head an inquiry.
  • The Board must meet the costs of any inquiry.

    It is clear that under the Government's bill many powers are taken away from the Police Board and given to the Secretary of State. This is one reason why the current Police Authority has criticised the new bill.

    A. For Unionists

  • Can you understand why Nationalists and Republicans see the name change as important?
  • Are there other ways to remember RUC officers killed in the Troubles than by keeping the name of the RUC?
  • If we return to Direct Rule, with an extensive in-put from the Dublin Government, will the British Government:
         - Keep the RUC as it is? Or
         - Implement Patten? Or
         - Implement the Government's current proposals?
  • How would you bring about a police service acceptable both to you and to Nationalists?

    B. For Nationalists

  • Can you understand why Unionists and Nationalists oppose the name change?
  • If the British Government adopted Patten's proposals for accountability but kept the name of the RUC, would you  accept this on the grounds that it is the substance of change that matters and not the name?
  • Would it be a problem if Unionists called the new police service the RUC and Nationalists called it the Police Service for Northern Ireland? Would this be similar to the Derry/Londonderry situation?
  • Do you accept that under the Agreement the British Government was required to set up the Patten Commission but not explicitly required to implement its findings?
  • Should the SDLP and/or Sinn Fein leave the Executive or refuse to support the new Police Board if Patten is not implemented in full? Would this lead to the collapse of the Executive?
  • If the Patten report is implemented will you encourage Catholics to join the Police?
  • How would you bring about a police acceptable both to you and to Unionists?

    C. For both Unionists and Nationalists

  • Is there a danger of making too much of difficulties about symbols and overlooking some of the operational issues?