CAIN Web Service

Statement by Chris Patten on the future of Policing in Northern Ireland, 9 September 1999

[Key_Events] [Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
POLICING: [Menu] [Reading] [Summary] [Background] [Chronology] [Main_Pages] [Statistics_Security] [Statistics_Law&Order] [Sources]

Research: Fionnuala McKenna
Material is added to this site on a regular basis - information on this page may change

Statement by Chris Patten on the publication of the Patten Report on the future of Policing in Northern Ireland (Thursday 9 September 1999)

1. I am pleased today, together with my seven fellow Commissioners, to present our report on future policing arrangements for Northern Ireland. The report represents fifteen months of work since our establishment in June last year, following the Agreement reached here in Belfast on Good Friday.

2. We have spent a total of two months in plenary meetings. We have had public meetings in every District Council area in Northern Ireland, attended by over 10,000 people. We have received 2,500 written submissions. We have had countless meetings - individually or collectively - with groups and individuals all over Northern Ireland. We have conducted surveys of public and police attitudes, and run focus groups. I am grateful to my colleagues here - all of whom have numerous other commitments in their lives, three of whom have had to fly back and forth across the Atlantic for meetings here - for the time and effort they have dedicated to our work. For all of us, this has probably been the most difficult and most sensitive task we have ever undertaken.

3. The result is a report which we all support. All our recommendations are unanimous. We believe the report meets the objective set for us in our Terms of Reference, as set out in the April 1998 Agreement, which said - I quote -
"Its proposals on policing should be designed to ensure that policing arrangements, including composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols, are such that in a new approach Northern Ireland has a police service that can enjoy widespread support from, and is seen as an integral part of, the community as a whole".


The phrase "new approach" is important. Our report is called "A New Beginning" - another phrase from the Agreement that 71% of the people of Northern Ireland voted for. People voted for a new approach and a new beginning in Northern Ireland. It has been our strong sense throughout the past fifteen months that the majority are determined that life here should be transformed and that, in spite of the difficulties of moving forward, things must not be allowed to go back to the way they were.

5. Our recommendations are recommendations about policing. But policing is a critical issue in society and so our recommendations reflect what we believe the majority of people want for Northern Ireland society - a new beginning based on reconciliation and tolerance, respect for human rights and human dignity, partnership, peace and democracy. One of our focus group members said that "the police should not reflect our society, but what we want for our society; society should always attempt to get better". We agree. We propose in this report a transformation of policing that is an integral part of the process of transforming Northern Ireland.


Our report looks forward in a broader sense as well. We have looked beyond Northern Ireland at developments in policing elsewhere - in the British Isles, Continental Europe, North America and South Africa. It is not only in Northern Ireland that people are considering how policing should change to meet the changing demands of society. Many police organisations are undergoing transformation of a fundamental kind.


Our proposals aim to give Northern Ireland policing arrangements which are second to none in the world by any measure - effectiveness, efficiency, impartiality, accountability, representativeness and respect for human rights. These have been the benchmarks against which we have tested our proposals. They are policing benchmarks, not political benchmarks.


This is a report about policing, not a political document. Policing in Northern Ireland has suffered, often with disastrous consequences, from being a political issue, and from being associated with the dispute about the state itself. Rightly or wrongly, that has been at the centre of the difficulty. There are sharp disagreements among Northern Ireland people about the politics of policing, but there is less disagreement about policing itself. It is impossible to find a political solution to the problem of policing in Northern Ireland. That is why the politicians agreed last year to pass the issue to this independent commission. Since they could not agree on the answers, we were asked to suggest a way forward. We believe that it is possible to find a policing solution to the policing problem, but only if you take the politics out of policing. That is a key part of this report - the depoliticisation of policing.


I have stressed that this has been a forward-looking exercise and that this is a forward-looking report. But those who do not understand history are condemned to repeat it, and we have taken care to listen to what people have had to say about the past, to read their submissions, and to read reports about policing in Northern Ireland - published and unpublished - and, where possible, to meet their authors. We were not set up to make judgments, and we have not done so. But our recommendations take account of all we have heard, and they are designed to ensure that any past mistakes are not repeated and to minimise any prospect of abuses such as those alleged to have taken place in the past. We are not here to praise or to blame, but rather to look to the future. But we of course recognize, as the Catholic Bishops said in their submission to us, that "In the process of implementing the Agreement it is vitally important that the needs of those who have been bereaved or injured are taken into account. This includes the need to acknowledge the deep sense of loss and loyalty which exists within the RUC and the families of those members of the RUC who have been killed or injured when undertaking the review of policing. It also requires an acknowledgement of the sincere efforts made by the RUC in recent years to become more acceptable to the Nationalist community.".


This is a substantial report, with 175 recommendations, but not a long document by the standards of these things and we hope that everyone interested in policing - in Northern Ireland or elsewhere - will read it in full. The recommendations form a package which we firmly believe needs to be implemented comprehensively. We counsel strongly against cherry-picking from the report, or trying to implement some major elements of it in isolation from others.


This is not to say that all our recommendations should be implemented whatever the security situation. We cannot naively assume the best, and leave the community unprotected if the worst happens. We make it clear in the report that, although there are many changes that can and should be made rapidly, regardless of other considerations, there are others that must be considered in the light of developments. But our commitment to goals in the second category is not diluted by the recognition that no one can say now what should be the precise timing of their implementation.


The major elements of the report are as follows:-

(i) Human rights. We recommend a comprehensive programme of action to focus policing in Northern Ireland on a human rights-based approach. We see the upholding of fundamental human rights as the very purpose of policing and we propose that it should be instilled in all officers from the start - in the oath they take, in their training, and in their codes of practice and in their performance appraisal system.

(ii) Accountability. We believe that the people of Northern Ireland should be responsible for the policing of Northern Ireland. We propose a new Policing Board, to replace the Police Authority, comprising both elected members and independents, with substantially enhanced powers of oversight over the police. Government, whether it is central government or the Northern Ireland Executive once policing is devolved (as we believe it should be, as soon as possible), should be able to set long-term objectives or principles for policing, but it should be the Board that sets medium-term objectives and priorities and holds the police to account for delivering those objectives. We recommend a less direct relationship between Government and the police.

We also recommend that each District Council area should have its own District Policing Partnership Board, providing local level forums at which district police commanders should be able to discuss policing issues with local community representatives.

In the interests of transparency, we propose that the Policing Board and the District Policing Partnership Boards should all meet in public. And that the police themselves should develop a culture of transparency, the presumption being that everything should be available for public scrutiny unless it is in the public interest to hold it back.

For matters involving covert policing (which every police service needs) we recommend legislation that is fully compliant with the European Convention of Human Rights, the same for Northern Ireland as for the rest of the United Kingdom, and an independent commissioner for covert law enforcement in Northern Ireland as well as a complaints tribunal.

On complaints more generally, we endorse fully the recommendations made by my colleague Dr Maurice Hayes in his 1996 report concerning a Police Ombudsman, and we make some proposals as to how that new office should work to best effect.

(iii) Policing Style. We recommend that policing should be seen not just as something that the police do to or for the community, but something which is everyone_s responsibility. Partnership between police and community is the essence of the new policing style we recommend. Wherever possible - and clearly this is a matter which is going to be linked to the security situation - we want to see neighbourhood policing teams, and a reorientation away from the response policing which so dominates police work in Northern Ireland (as it did in many of the other police organisations we visited until quite recently). We make some recommendations about how policing might change in a situation of relative peace, including the removal of emergency legislation. We recommend the immediate closure of the holding centres. We are not able, however, to recommend a general disarmament of the police in present circumstances. Nor are we able, as we had all hoped we would be, to recommend that plastic baton rounds should no longer be used, because we have been unable to find any alternative technology - other than live fire - used by police elsewhere or under development, which can address the threat from petrol bombs and blast bombs. But we do make some recommendations about public order policing which should reduce the need for resort to plastic rounds.

(iv) Organisational Change. We recommend a decentralised structure for the police, with a district command corresponding to each District Council area. District commanders would report direct to headquarters, not through divisional and regional layers of command as now. They would have a great deal of devolved authority. A slimmer and less hierarchical structure, with qualified civilians taking over management of personnel, finance and administration, will, we believe, enhance both the efficiency and effectiveness of the police. We also believe it will create an organisation that gives lower level and mid-level managers - from Sergeants to Superintendents - much more job satisfaction. And we make a number of recommendations concerning personnel management, including more generous provision for injured officers and for police widows.

(v) Numbers. The security situation may be better than it was, but it is too early to be confident about the longer term. Public order policing continues to demand thousands of police officers. For these reasons and others we are recommending a regular police service of about 7,500 officers - less than the present 8,500 but more than a comparably sized police area in the rest of the United Kingdom would have (and about the same proportion in relation to the population as in New York City). We propose that the Full Time Reserve should be phased out. (There are 2,900 Full Time Reservists, so adding that reduction to the reduction of the regulars, we are proposing that the full time officer strength be reduced from 11,400 to 7,500.) We believe that the reservists, and the regular officers who opt for early retirement, should be treated generously and we give an indication of what we believe that should mean.

(vi) Composition and Recruitment. All parts of society need to feel that the police service is their police service, and that does not happen unless all parts of society are represented in the police. Catholics only constitute 8% of the present police service. We are recommending that recruitment be outsourced to a specialist agency and that there should be an enhanced recruitment level for ten years, taking equal proportions of Protestants and Catholics (which accords with the demographic balance among people in their teens and twenties in Northern Ireland), all of whom must qualify in terms of merit. (The system we propose has been used successfully by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.) We estimate that the proportion of Catholic officers in the police should more than double in four years and reach 30% or more within ten years. This is very fast, compared with experience elsewhere in the world, but we believe it is achievable. It does, of course, depend upon leaders of the Catholic community - clergy, schoolteachers, politicians and others - helping to ensure that young Catholics go ahead and apply to join the police.

We also want to see an increase in the number of women joining the police, and staying in the police; and we make some proposals about that, and about ethnic and other minorities.

(vii) Training. The training, education and development of officers and civilians in the police is an integral part of the transformation we are proposing, and we make several recommendations, including a strategy and a budget for training, a new police college and training programmes that involve much more contact with civilians than exists at present. We also propose a substantial new investment in information technology.

(viii) Culture, ethos and symbols. Taken together, our recommendations will have a great impact on police culture - creating a more open, more accountable, less hierarchical, more modern organisation, more integrated with the community it serves. We believe that such a transformation - such a New Beginning - requires symbols that match the substance of that transformation. Our aim is to take the politics out of policing and we cannot do that if the symbols of policing are themselves political statements, or seen as such by a substantial section of the community. We propose a neutral name - The Northern Ireland Police Service - and new symbols to match. We see no reason, however, to change the colour of the uniform, which is distinct to Northern Ireland and cannot credibly be seen as a political statement of any kind. The Police Federation and many officers have recommended that the cut of the uniform should be updated, and we agree with that; but the colour should stay.

We know that the name is an emotional issue for some people. Some may see a change of name as a slight to the sacrifice and service of thousands of RUC officers who have performed their duties with professionalism and courage, and who have faced, and in many cases suffered, injury or death. This is emphatically not the case. We are transforming the RUC, not disbanding it. The memorials to the sacrifices of the past should remain as they are and where they are. But the greatest memorial of all will, we believe, be a peaceful Northern Ireland with agreed institutions including an agreed police service, with participation and support from the community as a whole. That is a vision which, more than any symbol, might make some sense of the sacrifices of the past.

(ix) Overseeing change. The changes we are proposing amount to a comprehensive transformation of policing, in which several different parties have responsibilities - government, the new Policing Board, the police service itself, and others. We have proposed an oversight Commissioner - an eminent person from somewhere other than Britain or Ireland - to conduct periodic reviews of the process of transformation.


This is a brief summary of the new arrangements we are proposing. There is much more to our report than this, and we urge everyone who cares about policing in Northern Ireland to read the report in full before reaching any conclusions about it. Copies are available for those who would like them, and the full text is available on the Internet.


I would like to say a few further words about the District Police Partnership Boards, because they have been the subject of some alarmist and misleading speculation over the past two weeks. One of the paragraphs in that section of our report reads as follows:
"Additionally we recommend that District Councils should have the power to contribute an amount initially up to the equivalent of a rate of 3p in the pound towards the improved policing of the district, which could enable the DPPB to purchase additional services from the police or other statutory agencies, or from the private sector. They might choose to use the money for security cameras in commercial centres, or to fund youth club schemes: it would be for them to decide, in consultation with their local police."


In consultation with their local police. This is not a recipe for recruiting terrorists into the police as scaremongers have claimed. It could mean, for example, that if the Board wanted a service from the police for which the police did not have adequate funds available, the board and the police would have flexibility to reach some arrangement. We know from talking to police area commanders that this would be welcome to them. It could mean hiring private companies to clean up graffiti and painted kerb-stones.


I suspect that I speak for some of my colleagues when I make this last personal remark. This is the most difficult and gruelling job I have ever done. Like my colleagues I agreed to take it on because I wanted to see the Agreement open the door to a better, safer, more decent life for Northern Ireland. Some who opposed the Agreement itself will doubtless try to distort our proposals. But I hope that the fair minded and concerned majority, not least in the police service itself, will give this report the serious and honest consideration that I believe it deserves. If this is not the way forward, I simply do not know what is.

CAIN contains information and source material on the conflict and politics in Northern Ireland.
CAIN is based within Ulster University.

go to the top of this page go to the top of this page
Last modified :