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SDLP response to the Patten Commission Report, 9 September 1999

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Research: Fionnuala McKenna
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The following is the full text of the statement issued by the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in response to the Patten Commission Report, Thursday 9 september 1999.

The SDLP fully acknowledges the extent of the work done by Chris Patten and his colleagues on the Independent Commission on Policing. We also acknowledge the extent of the studies and public consultation undertaken by the Commission, and the comprehensive and thorough nature of its conclusions. This is the first time, since 1920, that this community has had the opportunity to conduct and conclude such a wide-ranging debate on the policing needs of this society.

The Patten Report represents a serious body of proposals from a serious body of experienced public servants and administrators. It therefore deserves and demands the most serious examination and appraisal. Ultimately, the Patten proposals must be measured against the standards and requirements set out in the Good Friday Agreement for a police service which can attract and sustain support from the community as a whole.

The policing issue is an extremely sensitive and painful one for the whole of Northern Ireland. Since 1920 the RUC has been a core element in the unionist community and there has been a strong sense of identification between the police and unionist people. This has been enormously reinforced by the extent of the sacrifice made by hundreds of RUC personnel over the years. However, the strong identity between unionists and the RUC has been a major part of the problem. The nationalist community in Northern Ireland has never been able to identify with or share ownership of the police, and too often the RUC has failed in terms of impartiality and fair treatment.

Change is inevitable, desirable and overdue. All police forces in the democratic world have had to adapt and adjust to social change in society in recent years, and the RUC cannot be exempt. We must all face up to the responsibility and the challenge of change, and not shirk it.

The SDLP has read and considered the Patten Report. However, the Report will require much deeper study and analysis and therefore, at this stage we offer an indicative and preliminary response rather than a definitive verdict.

The question to be answered is, can the Patten Proposals fulfil the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement? The SDLP believes that the Report taken in totality and implemented faithfully and speedily contains the basis for the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement to be attained in terms of achieving a police service, which can attract and sustain the support of the whole community.

The SDLP acknowledges in particular the following positive recommendations in the Report:

  • the embedding of a human rights culture, training and standard in police practice and an oath to serve and respect all citizens of whatever national tradition or class.
  • the neutralising of the police service in terms of its name, symbols and ethos.
  • the commitment to real and functional accountability of the police to the public and their representatives at central, district and street level.
  • the commitment to achieve a routinely unarmed police service.
  • the commitment to achieve a balance in the police force, at full-time and reserve level, which properly reflects the demographic balance in the community.
  • the commitment to major improvements (and a high degree of civilian input) in police education and training.
  • proposals for structured co-operation with the Garda and other police forces, with secondment of officers to and from Northern Ireland.
  • the closure of the holding centres and the video-taping of all suspect interviews.
  • the appointment of an eminent person from a third country to supervise the implementation to these changes.

There are, however, some issues, which are not addressed in the Patten Report as fully or as satisfactorily as we would wish. We would have wished the Patten Report to propose the immediate banning of the use of plastic bullets, and a much shorter time-scale for the achievement of balance within the police service. However we will work in every way to ensure that the objectives contained in the positive recommendations of the Report are met. For unionists, there is now an opportunity to achieve policing which attracts the support and involvement of both sections of the community. For nationalists there is an opportunity to achieve a policing service, under democratic control, in which they can share ownership. For the whole community there is an opportunity to achieve a policing service, which reflects the whole of our society, and is not made in the image of one section only.

The frenzied speculation about the contents of this Report, which have filled the media in recent weeks, has heightened fear and apprehension on both sides of the community. The responsibility which all of us now bear, is to inform and not to inflame public opinion. That is the standard which the SDLP has applied to this preliminary response, and which will inform subsequent responses. We ask everyone in this community to adopt the same standard. The opportunity, which we may now have, to create the kind of police service, which this community needs, should not be easily or carelessly disregarded.

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