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Order on

resolving the impasse over
the Patten report


Robin Wilson, Democratic Dialogue
October 2000





This is a discussion paper from the think tank Democratic Dialogue. Further copies of the paper are available, as hard copy (2 plus p&p) or e-mail attachment, from DD. Details are on the back cover, as is our web site address.

DD is grateful to its funders, including the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Esmée Fairbairn Charitable Trust and the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council, for making its work possible.

At the time of writing, with the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill about to go into the Lords and no resolution of the issue in sight, policing was threatening to destabilise the Belfast agreement.

DD is therefore publishing this paper as a constructive contribution to avoiding such a dread scenario, but the responsibility for its content is entirely my own. Any comments or criticisms are very welcome.


Robin Wilson


Trimble trembles


  1. The survival of the Belfast agreement now rests, whether one does or does not share his political affiliation, on the survival of David Trimble as first minister. If Mr Trimble were to resign or be deposed by his party, no alternative Ulster Unionist leader willing to work the agreement–in the unlikely event that such would be the successor–could summon the 30 unionist votes in the assembly required for the joint election of the first and deputy first minister under the ‘parallel consent’ requirement. The DFM, Séamus Mallon, would thus automatically be deposed along with Mr Trimble, the Executive Committee would therefore collapse and the North/South Ministerial Council with it (though not the Equality Commission or the Human Rights Commission). The remainder of the deck of cards–the assembly and the Civic Forum–would likely be wound up swiftly by order of the Westminster parliament.
  2. The two governments would begin a review of the agreement, but in effect it would be back to Square One. This is such a dispiriting, yet plausible, scenario that it must be avoided at all costs, particularly as the dénouement of the tragedy may only be weeks away. Whatever it takes to avoid such an outcome is worth it and history will not lightly forgive any party which put short-term partisan considerations first.
  3. One way Mr Trimble’s position could be shored up would be by the initiation of decommissioning by paramilitaries, now long overdue given the agreement’s two-year deadline for ‘total disarmament’. This is clearly not going to happen–indeed, it is probably not ever going to happen–and the best that could be hoped for at the time of writing was another arms inspection. That would likely not now be sufficient to avoid a majority in the Ulster Unionist Council voting to collapse the agreement or placing impossible constraints upon the party leader. The extent of erosion of support for the agreement within the Protestant community was revealed by the South Antrim by-election in September, where even a ‘soft-no’ Ulster Unionist candidate was unable to stop a Democratic Unionist Party victory in what had been the second safest UUP Westminster seat.
  4. A resolution of the impasse on policing is therefore critical. Yet on all sides intransigent positions have been taken, strident language has been adopted, and there has–once more–been the depressing spectacle of diverse Northern Ireland factions seeking to bend the ear of London, Dublin and Washington, rather than engaging in genuine dialogue with one another with a view to reaching an accommodation.
  5. Yet while the asymmetric fashion in which nationalists and unionists have approached the policing issue has led to mutual incomprehension, it paradoxically offers an avenue to a resolution, as the individual items the latter comprises are not zero-sum games. Some things matter far more to nationalists; others are more critical for unionists. A package is therefore viable which moderate nationalists and unionists, and ‘others’, can buy into and which will be difficult for more extreme voices to argue against–particularly since they can be painted as jeopardising peace and stability. For that package to attract the broadest support, it should be seen as both in line with the Patten report of September 1999 (as nationalists and the republic’s government demand) but also capable of attracting cross-community support (as unionists insist, following Patten’s terms of reference set out in the agreement).

    Calling to account

  7. What matters critically for nationalists are the issues to which the bulk of Patten was rightly devoted. These are the broad questions of governance, accountability and transparency on the one hand and, on the other, matters of composition and culture. In other words, for most Catholics to feel a genuine sense of ownership over the police, they need to believe that it will no longer be tarred with the causes célèbres of the past–requiring the investigations by Stalker, Stevens and so on–and that the ‘canteen culture’ will not be inhospitable to them.
  8. Critical here is clearly establishing the powers and independence of the proposed Policing Board–on which nationalist and unionist politicians would be represented–as the Human Rights Commission (Belfast Telegraph, July 28th 2000) and the outgoing Police Authority (Irish Times, September 21st 2000) have pointed out. Also crucial is the investigatory power of the police ombudsman. Essentially these two bodies must, respectively, be the sites where the strategy of the police and the scrutiny of its performance are elaborated, and they must be appropriately constituted to carry out these tasks to the full. The nationalist case that the provisions in the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill represent a dilution of chapter six of the Patten report on accountability is thus well made, and the bill should be amended accordingly to bring it back into line with what Patten recommended.
  9. A neglected strength of the Patten report was how it took human-rights principles as its starting point for considering policing. Changing the behaviour of the police and the canteen culture is not only a matter of ensuring a ‘critical mass’ of Catholic officers is quickly secured, via the proposed 50-50 recruitment system. It is also a matter of instilling a human-rights culture by the various methods Patten proposed. Commitments to disbanding the RUC full-time reserve, closing the remaining interrogation centre at Gough barracks and merging the Special Branch and CID, in line with Patten, would assist in this regard. Unionists are generally wrong in their belief that such changes ‘lower the guard’ against terrorism; in fact, it has been abuses of human rights over the years which have rendered a large section of the Catholic community ambivalent towards the rule of law.
  10. Yet, unattractive as some of these changes are to unionists, they are not of paramount significance. It was, after all, government drafters and not the UUP who determined that the policing bill would depart from Patten in these areas. Nor should this be read as necessarily implying a British ‘securocrat’ conspiracy: the provisions on accountability, even as they now stand, would, as British ministers reasonably claim, be the most radical in these islands. And the absence of any police authority in the republic shows the limits of the Department of Justice’s domestic ambition for accountability in this regard.

    Something in a name

  12. It should be stressed that what does not matter for most Catholics is the abolition of any reference to the name ‘RUC’. This is an issue for ideological republicans, but for reasons nothing to do with policing and everything to do with presenting the RUC as ‘discredited’ in order to legitimise the ‘armed struggle’ of the last 30 years. The fact that republican paramilitaries have killed some 56 per cent of all victims of the ‘troubles’ as against 1.5 per cent for which the RUC has been responsible (Fay, Morrissey and Smyth, 1999: 169) means that argument need detain us no further.
  13. In fact, a 1995 survey for the Police Authority, which asked ‘Should the name of the RUC be changed?’ found Catholic opinion divided: 49 per cent said yes, 44 per cent no (PANI, nd: appendix 6). Note that the question implied: Should the name of the RUC be changed at all? While no organisation polled the Mgr Denis Faul compromise on the name, ‘RUC: Northern Ireland’s Police Service’, this survey would suggest it would have commanded majority Catholic endorsement. (Indeed since 89 per cent of Protestants surveyed were opposed to change of the name–by implication, any change–the Mgr Faul compromise would likely have been significantly more popular amongst Catholics.) This makes intuitive sense: what matters to most Catholics is not the name of the police but what that name connotes.
  14. This evidence was borne out by a more recent Ulster Marketing Surveys poll (Belfast Telegraph, April 5th 2000). The ‘identity and name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary’ was found to be very/fairly offensive to 31 per cent of Catholics, as against 24 per cent who found it very/fairly inoffensive. Moreover, not only the substantive pluralism of Catholic opinion on the issue but the low salience of it should be recognised. While 13 per cent of Catholic respondents (as against 65 per cent of Protestants) felt the identity and name to be very/fairly important, 48 per cent of Catholics thought it very/fairly unimportant. Finally, and not least, the Patten report itself cites Community Attitudes Survey evidence that the main reason why Catholic respondents have been deterred from joining the RUC–cited by 70 per cent–has been intimidation or fear of attack.
  15. Conversely, the name is hugely important for Protestants. This is not, as nationalists often claim, primarily because Protestants want the police to be ‘their’ police. The lack of hostility to the 50-50 recruitment idea–indeed one current UUP minister claims his party advanced it–suggests otherwise. The obvious, and more plausible, reason is the 302 dead and the tens of thousands maimed over the last three decades–almost universally, because of the skewed composition of the RUC, from the Protestant community. It is resentment that the RUC victims of paramilitary violence would be airbrushed from history were Patten to be accepted in its entirety which has, almost singly, fuelled Protestant anger. The scale of that anger should not be under-estimated: more than 300,000 people signed an anti-Patten petition got up by the Police Federation–the whole Protestant community, man, woman and child, numbers only about one million.
  16. To suggest that only one out of 175 recommendations in any report is flawed is hardly unreasonable. On the contrary, it is a testimony to the superb quality of the report that that is so. But, equally, that the commission devoted only half of one paragraph to the name itself belies its failure to appreciate the true significance of the issue, despite the subsequent disclaimer of insensitivity to the bereaved. That no reasoning was offered against the Mgr Faul compromise (and indeed has never been offered subsequently by the Northern Ireland secretary) was a significant omission.
  17. The SDLP councillor Declan O’Loan (statement, September 30th 2000) has put the issue very clearly:
  18. In general terms, the Patten proposals offer the opportunity to create a policing system with a structure, a human rights culture and accountability mechanisms which deserve the support of everyone. Any difficulties over these matters are capable of being surmounted. The major problem is the name of the police service, and nationalists need to attend to why this genuinely is a significant issue for unionist people. The removal of the RUC name appears to say that it was essentially the RUC that was responsible for our policing problems in the past, and for the poor relationship between the police and the nationalist community. It will be better if the nationalist community can recognise that the truth was much more complex, and that no group can escape its responsibilities for past failures here. It will be a tragedy if the creation of a better structure of policing, and wider agreement, falls on the issue of the name; nationalists should consider whether it is so important for the RUC name to be removed, or whether it could be retained in some form in the interests of a wider consensus.

  19. Amidst all the political sound and fury surrounding the implementation of Patten–‘in full’ or otherwise–it has gone completely without notice that neither the British government, nor the UUP, nor the SDLP (nor, by implication, the republic’s government) is committed to the precise implementation of Patten in terms of the name. More importantly, the actual gap between the parties is so small that a visiting Martian would have found it very difficult to distinguish one amendment from another as the inter-party battle reached a peak of (rhetorical) intensity in Parliament in July.
  20. The British government’s initial draft of the policing bill was based on Patten’s recommendation on the name, though it turned the ‘Northern Ireland Police Serice’ around to the ‘Police Service of Northern Ireland’ to avoid pejorative references to the ‘NIPS’. A UUP amendment was, however, accepted by the government at the committee stage. This would have the first clause read: ‘The body of constables known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary shall continue in being as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary).’ The SDLP did not completely reject this but proposed an alternative which differed by placing a comma after ‘Northern Ireland’ and adding ‘which incorporates the Royal Ulster Constabulary’. The second clauses of the two amendments differed in so far as the UUP said that that body of constables would be ‘styled for operational purposes the "Police Service of Northern Ireland"’, whereas the SDLP said it would be thus ‘known for all purposes’.
  21. Just before the Commons rose in mid-July, the government had intended to amend the UUP amendment to define ‘operational purposes’ as including ‘all working, public, legal, ceremonial, administrative, presentational, and recruitment purposes’. This would have been acceptable to the SDLP. But at the 11th hour the amendment was withdrawn, to accusations by Mr Mallon of ‘political chicanery’ (Irish Times, July 13th 2000). The government feared that the survival of Mr Trimble would be jeopardised if it persisted. The whole issue thus went into obeyance until the bill goes to the Lords, which government business managers seem to have been in no hurry to schedule.
  22. It must frankly be doubted how many citizens in Northern Ireland have followed the detail of this debate. It must equally be concluded that there is room for SDLP flexibility on this point. ‘Legal’ and ‘ceremonial’ are clearly not ‘operational’ purposes and an agreement between the SDLP and the UUP on the withdrawn amendment, minus these two words, would be a reasonable resolution. The UUP would have ‘Police Service of Northern Ireland (incorporating the Royal Ulster Constabulary)’ as the title in law, and for use on ceremonial occasions, while the SDLP would have secured the PSNI name for all practical purposes. This would be in clearer line with the spirit of Patten–which did not recommend disbandment but ‘a transformation of policing in Northern Ireland’–than Patten’s own name proposal (which would have been the same had disbandment been recommended). It would also fulfil the requirement in his terms of reference of cross-community consent.


    Symbolic gesture

  24. Where there is some overlap between unionist and nationalist concerns, and there is thus genuine difficulty in achieving a reconciliation, is in the area of the symbols associated with the police. Here the problem is an unresolved contradiction at the heart of the agreement, identified in the earlier DD paper on flags (DD, 2000). This is between its espousal (at unionist insistence) of the ‘Britishness’ of Northern Ireland in terms of ‘sovereignty’ and (at nationalist insistence) of ‘parity of esteem’ between ‘British’ and ‘Irish’ identities. This sets in train a perpetual attrition as republicans seek to remove British symbolism or introduce dual, British-Irish, symbolism and unionists resist this process. As ever, two rights make a wrong. Unionists are right to say the republican position implies joint authority (which the agreement does not support), while nationalists are right to say that even controlled flying of the Union flag does not provide parity of esteem.
  25. As the earlier paper identified, the only way out of this dilemma is a third, fresh position, which recognises both partition and the sui generis character of Northern Ireland–a new emblem for the region. The paper pointed out that, as this does not imply victory for one side or the other, it can be signed up to by both–as evidenced by the manner in which the assembly agreed its flax-flowers logo without controversy. Indeed it suggested, more positively, that this could stimulate a greater sense of regional civic pride, moderating the unionist-nationalist antagonism, and be a vehicle robustly to promote a ‘new Northern Ireland’ abroad.
  26. Patten proposed a new symbolism for the new service, and one way to implement that would be to agree that it would be derived from a new Northern Ireland regional flag. The DD paper suggested that the new symbol should be generated by a process of public commission and associated debate. This would inevitably take several months. It is not necessary that this be nailed down in the bill. The Northern Ireland secretary has suggested the Policing Board could address the issue of symbolism but the danger is that this could deadlock the board on everything, perhaps provoking boycotts or resignations. Agreement to shelve the issue until the outcome of a broader deliberation on a new emblem, in which politicians would only have to endorse an outcome–rather than determine it themselves–would take some of the heat out of this argument.
  27. Such an approach, again, would stress the civic character of the new service and a sense of common ownership. There would not, it is true, be symmetrical cross-community support–there is clear fundamentalist unionist opposition to any emblem bar the Union flag–but the earlier DD proposal was otherwise given a remarkably fair wind. In other words, it is not unreasonable to ask the UUP to accept such a proposal.
  28. It is true that the proposed resolution set out here will not secure the support of the DUP. It is equally true that, because of what is being suggested on the name, it might not secure republican endorsement. Republican sources have in any event indicated that Patten is ‘a floor, not a ceiling’ and have refused to say whether they would support a new service based on Patten. But it should be supported by the SDLP, UUP and the two governments. Frankly, in this context it would be unlikely that either the DUP or SF would decline to take up their seats on the Policing Board. And it should be sufficient to kick-start the key factor in this process of transformation: a major increase in Catholic applications to join the service.
  29. This is not a perfect solution–nothing in politics is. But it is probably the only way out of the impasse which is in line with Patten and can command cross-community support. It might also be the only way to save the Belfast agreement.



Democratic Dialogue (2000), Flagging Concern, Belfast: DD

Fay, M-T, Morrissey, M and Smyth, M (1999), Northern Ireland’s Troubles: The Human Costs, London: Pluto Press

Police Authority for Northern Ireland (nd), ‘Everyone’s Police’: A Partnership for Change, Belfast: PANI

[List of Reports] [List of Papers]

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Phone: +44 (0)28 9022 0050. Fax: +44 (0)28 9022 0051

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