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Identity crisis for police

armed ruc
Officers monitor a Drumcree parade near the Garvaghy Road in Portadown  

(CNN) -- Of the contentious decisions taken in the bid to build a modern Northern Ireland acceptable to all who live in it, none has caused such controversy as the reforms proposed for the former Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Among those reforms was the renaming of the RUC as the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which took place in late 2001.

The reforms were designed to attract more nationalist support for the organisation, as well as more Catholics into its ranks. A major recruiting drive also was launched to balance the number of Protestant and Catholic officers.

However, the name change angered some RUC officers, their relatives and unionist politicians, who say the force's identity has been stripped away to appease nationalists.


Since 1969, when violence escalated in Northern Ireland, 302 RUC officers were murdered and almost 9,000 injured in attacks.

Founded in 1922 to replace the Royal Irish Constabulary, the RUC was unique among UK police forces in that it was required to enforce the law as well as counter terrorist activities.

armed soldier
Armed security on the streets  

The original intention of the RUC's founding Committee on Police Reorganisation called for the new 3,000-strong armed force to be one-third Catholic. However, the proportion never exceeded 20 percent and more commonly stood in recent years at about 10 percent.

In 1969, in response to increasing tension and violence in Northern Ireland, Lord Hunt, leader of the 1953 Everest exhibition, was asked to assess and advise on policing.

His report recommended a complete reorganisation of the RUC including disarming its officers and creating a Police Authority representative of the whole community.

However, by 1972 attacks against the police had become so regular that side arms were reissued.

In 1983, Interpol figures showed that Northern Ireland was the most dangerous place in the world to be a police officer, the risk factor being twice as high as in El Salvador, the second most dangerous.

Also in 1972 -- two years after the army was called in to Northern Ireland in response to the rapidly deteriorating situation -- a report by Lord Scarman found that the Catholic community had no trust in the RUC, which they regarded as the "strong arm of Protestant ascendancy."

However, the report rejected claims the RUC was a "partisan force co-operating with sectarian mobs."

Further controversy resulted from an Amnesty report around the same time that alleged mistreatment of terrorist suspects.

In the 1980s the force was at the centre of allegations that it was operating a "shoot to kill" policy after six terrorist suspects, five unarmed, were shot dead in three separate incidents. Four officers involved in the deaths of republican suspects were later acquitted.

Patten commission

The provisions of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 called for a new civilian police service, shorn of its anti-terrorist role and designed to reflect the demographic balance in Northern Ireland.

The resulting Independent Commission on Policing, chaired by Chris Patten, the former Conservative Party chairman and the last UK governor of Hong Kong, made 175 recommendations.

Among the Patten commission's recommendations was the scrapping of the RUC's crown-and-harp cap badge  

The main reforms were: the RUC to be renamed the Police Service of Northern Ireland; new recruits to be drawn from a 50-50 pool of Protestants and Catholics; the force to be reduced from 13,500 to about 7,500; the force's crown-and-harp cap badge to be scrapped; all RUC officers to receive human rights training and accept a new police oath; a new policing board to replace the existing police authority.

The Patten commission criticised the RUC, describing it as militaristic and hierarchical compared to other police forces. It said that because of the security threat -- and in order to protect itself from attack -- it had resorted to methods of policing that separated its officers from the community.

The report said: "Policing cannot be fully effective when the police have to operate from fortified stations in armoured vehicles, and when police officers dare not tell their children what they do for a living for fear of attack from extremists from both sides."

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson's strategy in adopting almost all the commission's recommendations enraged unionists, who saw the proposals as the latest in a long line of concessions towards the nationalists.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said: "Nothing that this government says or does can dishonour the RUC or the men that serve in it. But the government can and is dishonouring itself."

Ken Maginnis, the party's security spokesman, said the reforms "degraded, demeaned and denigrated the RUC."

'Highest quality policing'

Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the organisation's chief constable, said his force stood ready to endure the pain of losing its name and badge if it were to prove that those moves would boost Catholic representation. But he remained to be convinced that would be the outcome.

Apprentice Boys are held back from marching down the Garvaghy Road by the armed response unit of the RUC in 1997  

"We will pursue transition with dignity. We will be hurt but we will do our best to continue to provide the highest quality policing service to all members of the public in Northern Ireland," Flanagan said.

Mandelson said the changes were essential to ensure the force was acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland and to end its long-standing focus as a "fulcrum for antagonistic debate."

The RUC, he said, had "inevitably, if unfairly" become associated in the nationalist community with the British state.

Although he realised the "hurt" involved in changing the name, it was essential. He said: "The service will never be acceptable unless that change is made -- and changed it must be."

George Cross

As it resigned itself to reform, the force was awarded the George Cross for valour. For many in Northern Ireland, the honour -- which has been given on 16 previous occasions to individual officers -- smacked of political expediency, coming as it did so soon after the controversial Patten report.

In front of more than 1,500 serving and former officers, some terribly handicapped, who had gathered at Hillsborough Castle, County Down, Queen Elizabeth II conferred the honour which had only once before been conferred collectively -- to the islanders of Malta in 1942 while they were under German air bombardments.

The queen said: "Due in no small measure to the bravery and dedication over the years of the men and women of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, Northern Ireland is now a much more peaceful and stable place in which to live. I hope and trust that the enmities of the past can be laid to rest in a way that fully recognises the sacrifices made."

Referring to the changes, she added: "I am confident that you will maintain that sense of duty and dedication which is being honoured today. I know that you will have my support and prayers in the future as the dogged and relentless search for lasting peace continues."

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