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Dispute Over Police Reform Imperils the Peace

October 15, 2000|Kelly Candaele | Kelly Candaele is a contributing writer for the Irish Voice newspaper and Irish America Magazine

The Northern Ireland peace process is again in crisis. While an assembly is functioning in Belfast and all the major parties are represented in the executive committee of government, divisions between predominantly Catholic nationalists and mainly Protestant unionists over police reform threaten to bring down the power-sharing government.

Currently, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police force of Northern Ireland, is more than 90% Protestant. The Protestant community views the constabulary as a bulwark against terrorism by the Irish Republican Army, but in the minority Catholic areas, it is seen by many as an occupying force. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams describes it as a "unionist militia" that should be disbanded. There is evidence that members of the police force have supplied loyalist para-military organizations with arms and helped them target republican activists for assassination.

The constabulary's lack of legitimacy and trust in Northern Ireland's hard-core republican areas has created a policing vacuum that has been largely filled by people associated with the IRA. Their supporters regard them as "protectors," though their form of justice has been swift, often brutal and sometimes murderous. If a police force that is acceptable and trustworthy to both communities cannot be created, the foundations of Northern Irish civil society will remain tenuous, and the new government's difficult task of building a new society will be undermined.

The Patten Commission report, a byproduct of the Good Friday peace agreement, was supposed to be a blueprint for police reform in Northern Ireland. Last September, the commission, chaired by Christopher Patten, the former British governor for Hong Kong, delivered its recommendations to transform the police force. In addition to recommending a neutral name for the new organization, the document advocated an independent policing board, a police ombudsman and a "community policing" approach. The aim was to create effective public accountability. Nationalist political parties would then have the political space to encourage their constituents to join and support the new police force. The report concluded that 70% of the Catholic population felt that the Royal Ulster Constabulary failed to treat both communities equally.

But David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and first minister in the assembly, stated recently that the "peace could be lost" if the Patten Commission proposals are fully implemented. Trimble fears not only the breakdown of the peace process but also the loss of his party leadership. Three weeks ago in a parliamentary by-election, a candidate from Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party, which stridently opposes the peace agreement, defeated Trimble's candidate. It was a seat that Trimble's party had held for years and had won by 16,000 votes in the previous election.

In Northern Ireland, parliamentary by-elections have historically been a political portent. Militant republican Bernadette Devlin won a by-election in 1969, as did hunger striker Bobby Sands in 1981, a victory that influenced Sinn Fein to develop a more political strategy.

Critics within his own party say Trimble, considered a moderate in Northern Ireland politics, has been too quick to acquiesce to republican demands. There is mounting pressure from party members opposed to the peace agreement to resurrect the "no guns [decommissioning], no Sinn Fein in government" demands that paralyzed political movement earlier this year. Last week at a party conference, Trimble challenged his critics to offer a viable alternative to the peace agreement and to abandon "the failed tactics of yesteryear." But he remains in a weakened position. He's now calling for a moratorium on Patten until decommissioning has occurred.

Trimble also has turned to the British government for help. Legislation to implement police reform is currently making its way through Parliament. Peter Mandelson, the British Labor Party's secretary for Northern Ireland, has amended the Patten proposals in an attempt to save Trimble. But the changes have alienated leaders of both Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labor Party, a moderate nationalist party. Both organizations view police reform as critical toestablishing parity and justice in Northern Ireland.

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