At every encounter with a truly difficult issue, it seems, the Northern Irish peace plan sinks further from the buoyancy that marked its inception last year. First, it was the question of disarming paramilitary bodies. Now it's reorganization of the province's police force.
The latter issue is a study in the North's hopes, conflicts, and inner contradictions.
The present force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), has battled terrorists for 30 years. Many of its officers have served valiantly, but its identity - starting with that word "royal" - is firmly tied to the pro-British side of the political divide. The reorganization plan now on the table would change all that. The name would go, in favor of a neutral "Northern Ireland Police Service." Catholics would be heavily recruited (the force is currently 92 percent Protestant). And "community policing," by a force that reflects the community would become the order of the day.
All very reasonable, and highly praised in Dublin and London. But the plan met angry resistance from Ulster Unionists, who consider steps like the name change appeasement to republican terrorists. Response on the other side has been lukewarm. Sinn Fein, the party allied with the militant Irish Republican Army, wants a complete dismantling of the RUC.
In fact the plan serves the long-term interests of all of Northern Ireland's people. It may not be easy, for example, to recruit Catholic policemen (traditionally, Catholics on the national police force have been targeted by the IRA). But a good case can be made that participation in the new force will be a high service to the Catholic community, providing police officers that care about local people and displacing the vigilantism of the militants.
The plan would be phased in over a number of years, and it provides for thorough training, including sensitivity to human-rights concerns.
In this matter, as with disarmament, the public's continuing support for the peace process must prevail. It creates a reservoir of buoyancy to counter the ballast of dug-in political stances.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society