Article by Chris Patten on the Policing Bill and the Patten Report, 28 November 2000
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Article by Chris Patten on the Policing Bill and the Patten Report (Tuesday 28 November 2000)
For months I have resisted invitations to speak out about policing in Northern Ireland. The commission that I chaired produced its report in September 1999, completed its work and disbanded. The implementation buck then passed to others.
I have said nothing until now because I did not think it appropriate or smart to get involved in the political wrangling that has surrounded the implementation of our report, and the Bill that was making its way through Parliament.
Now that the parliamentary process is completed, there are some points that I believe must be made. I do not intend to whinge about the implementation process so far. Whatever my own views on how that might have been handled, it is not my business.
However, much has been said or written about the "spirit of Patten" or "what Patten intended" and it is hard to take too much of that when it is either misleadingly selective or just plain wrong - and that is my business.
Some of the claims made about our report lead one to wonder if the speakers or writers have actually read it. I have lost count of the number of times it has been said that the "Patten report" was a political compromise or a political balancing act. That is the opposite of the truth, as anyone who has read just the first chapter would know.
The whole point about the report is that it is not political. It is the work of an independent and international group of people from very different backgrounds, entrusted with a task by the politicians who agreed to the Good Friday agreement precisely because the issue of policing could not be solved by politicians.
In chapter one we said emphatically that we regarded it as impossible to build a bridge between the diametrically opposed political views on policing, that we had therefore rejected that as an approach and instead developed and tested our proposals entirely against policing benchmarks, not political ones.
Those benchmarks were effectiveness, efficiency, impartiality, accountability, representativeness and respect for human rights. Get those right and you depoliticise policing in Northern Ireland. Argue about the politics of policing and you remain stuck forever. And police officers continue to find themselves under attack from both sides (one lies critically injured after a bomb attack in early November.)
It was with dismay rather than surprise that my former colleagues and I watched the debate over implementation focus so much on politics and in particular on the politically charged issues of names, symbols and flags. It is a reality in Northern Ireland that these things generate intense heat.
But it is also a reality that the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly managed perfectly well to agree on an emblem for the Assembly and if they can do it for the highest political body in the land they can do it for the police.
With the policing Bill now becoming law, it is time to get back to the future - to look beyond old political arguments and towards building new policing arrangements for Northern Ireland which are second to none in the world by any of the measures I listed above. That is the "spirit of Patten" and it is now within reach.
The legislation is not, and never could have been, the whole story.
Most of what was in our report did not require legislation. There is a vast amount more to be done to turn the vision in the report into reality - on recruitment, on police reorganisation, on training and education, on police practices and human rights.
This is not a matter for the British government and the police alone. It is a matter for all the communities of Northern Ireland. Political parties and other community leaders should now be working to get their representatives on to the Policing Board and the District Policing Partnerships. They should now start to encourage youth from all parts of the Northern Ireland community to apply to join the police (which will be using a new name - Police Service of Northern Ireland and a new badge for which the Policing Board itself should advise on the design).
The Police Ombudsman's office is now established, and the combination of her office and the Policing Board mean Northern Ireland will have, to the best of my knowledge, the most rigorous system of independent civilian oversight in the world. It is a system of which the people of Northern Ireland should take full advantage in order to get the sort of policing that they want. In the future, particularly when policing is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the people of Northern Ireland will be able to develop their new police service in the light of experience and the changing needs of a society freed - we must all hope - from the scourge of political violence.
I welcome the appointment of Tom Constantine, former chief of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, as the "Oversight Commissioner," whose job it will be to conduct periodic audits of the progress being made by all those involved in the development of the new policing arrangements. He is known to some of my former colleagues on the commission and well respected.
The concern that I and my former colleagues have that our recommendations should be implemented goes far deeper than pride of authorship.
We became firmly convinced during our extensive consultations in Northern Ireland in 1998 and 1999 that the sort of arrangements we proposed would meet the policing requirements of the ordinary men and women of all communities in Northern Ireland, including those who wanted to pursue careers in the police, so that any young man or woman could feel able to join the police and enjoy cross-community support in carrying out their duties without fearing for their safety or that of their families. And we did not see that any other set of arrangements could achieve that outcome. Nothing that has happened since has changed my mind on this point. The "spirit of Patten" is that everyone should put the politics of policing behind them and get on with building the new beginning for depoliticised policing.
Chris Patten is the European Union Commissioner for External Relations. The above article first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 28 November 2000.
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