Patten report: ‘Substance over Symbolism’ Neeson

The Patten Report is a significant document, which deserves a serious debate. However, this debate must not become bogged down in arguments over symbols but should be focused upon the substance.

From the Alliance perspective, we welcome the report, as we believe it sets out the basis for a professional, impartial and efficient police service for the whole community. Indeed, the report as the whole is consistent with our vision of an integrated, shared Northern Ireland.

However, this does not mean that we do not have difficulties with certain recommendations. Some require clarification, others may well require some amendment before they can be implemented. Alliance will be making a detailed submission on the Patten Report, and a special meeting of our party council will be held to consider the matter.

The future of policing must not be seen as a zero-sum game in which what are perceived as gains for one section of the community are perceived as losses for another, or vice versa, but rather a new beginning in which the whole community is the winner.

Policing must take into account that we sadly remain a deeply divided society. It is always important that the police serve the public in a fair and impartial manner. But for us, in Northern Ireland, it is vital the police are not perceived as being associated with a particular political viewpoint or constitutional objective.

In practice, the commissioners on the future of policing needed to simultaneously address two overarching political objectives: firstly, preserving a degree of continuity through a transformed, not abolished, police service; and secondly, attracting enough new recruits to make the police representative of the community they serve.

It is neither practical nor fair to talk about disbandment of the RUC. It is difficult, if not impossible, to begin from scratch. Doing so would constitute a great injustice to RUC members and their families who made sacrifices in fighting terrorism, and trying to maintain a semblance of the rule of law over many difficult years.

Continuity has been achieved. The current Chief Constable will remain in office; existing police officers will not have to reapply to a new service. But we must also acknowledge that the RUC do not carry legitimacy right across our community, and that its current make-up is not representative of the people it is expected to serve.

Serious efforts must be made to attract more Catholics, women, and ethnic minorities into the police. Hopefully the overall package of reforms will make public service through the police a serious career option for all sections of the community.

As someone who served on the Police Authority for six years, I recognise the sensitivity of the proposed name-change. But this is an issue that been flagged up for some time. This was a necessary step to balance the continuity of the current service with attracting individuals from underrepresented groups. Achieving this balance is more important than a rigid adherence to particular symbols.

Once again we see hard-line Unionists trying to exploit and sensationalise an issue for narrow political purposes. Ironically, those emerging as the self-appointed ‘saviours of the RUC’ are in many instances some of the same people that have threatened the rule of law and even the police themselves whenever they didn’t serve their own selfish objectives.

Alliance has major difficulties with the proposed system of quotas on recruitment. Positive discrimination is wrong, and may be counterproductive if it further polarises our divided society. Furthermore even if the fair employment law in Northern Ireland is changed, any quotas are probably illegal under European Law.

But, quotas are not necessary. A quota is a tool for solving problems in selection within the pool of qualified candidates. However, our problem is attracting enough applicants from underrepresented groups. If we do not get enough applicants, then no quota is going to solve this problem. Efforts are better placed on aggressive affirmative action in recruitment; quotas can be transformed into targets.

If the Good Friday Agreement is implemented in full, there is every reason to believe that most people with have a confidence and allegiance to the new institutions, and this will include the police service.

Concerns have been expressed over the recommendations on the decentralisation of the police. However, Alliance is satisfied that the right emphasis has been placed upon a single, integrated police service for the whole of Northern Ireland operating to uniform and high standards of professionalism.

The amount of money open to councils to spend will be minimal. It can only be spent in consultation with the local police. However, consideration must be given to additional safeguards to keep paramilitary organisations out of the process, and to ensure that the district boards are truly representative and operate according to a proper code of conduct.

However, an element of democratic accountability over the police is something positive. It is important that people feel a sense of ownership over policing and that their concerns are listened to.

Alliance is very conscious of the growing fears that many people have from ordinary crime, and the desire to see police walking on the beat rather than patrolling in cars.

With these new proposals, we have the opportunity, to create a much greater community focus within policing.

There is much in Patten that can and should be implemented as soon as possible. Other elements are obviously linked to confidence in an improved security situation. Within a normal policing context, Northern Ireland should not require the current force levels. But we should be cautious of making reductions in an uncertain political and security climate. Retiring officers must be treated generously.

In the main, the Government must be prepared to commit the necessary resources to implement a new start to policing. Expending substantial resources now not only will be a saving in the long term, it will be an investment for the future of policing that the whole community deserves.


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