IN A ONCE-UNTHINKABLE concession, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army voted Sunday to recognize the authority of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. Meeting in Dublin, Sinn Fein pledged cooperation with the new force only days after revelations that the province's previous police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, coddled Protestant killers as recently as the 1990s. The juxtaposition of the two events suggests that what was once regarded as an intractable political problem is on its way to a solution.
According to a report last week by Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan, the RUC's Special Branch protected informants from the Ulster Volunteer Force, an illegal Protestant paramilitary group, even though they were involved in 10 killings and other acts of violence. Coziness between the police and underworld informants isn't unique to Northern Ireland, but the ties between the RUC and Protestant paramilitaries confirmed what Catholics long had argued: that law and order in the province was skewed in favor of Protestants.
But, as Sinn Fein has recognized, that was then and this is now. More than a name differentiates the new police service from the RUC. As might be expected in a force with "royal" in its title, the RUC was composed largely of pro-British Protestants. The new force, whose membership is almost a quarter Catholic (a proportion that is expected to grow as a result of aggressive recruiting), has been reconstituted and reformed as part of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.