Ulster police chief fights to keep his force impartial

A public dispute between Ulster's tough police chief Sir John Hermon, and Protestant hard-line leader the Rev. Ian Paisley, has highlighted the tensions within the force facing one of the world's most difficult policing jobs.

Sir John, who is responsible for 7,000 police regulars and 5,000 reserves, is known for his impartiality. He is determined that the police should serve equally the 1 million Protestants and half million Roman Catholics in Northern Ireland.

This approach has made him a target for Mr. Paisley's attacks and for discontent within his own force.

The chief constable seems to be winning his battle with Mr. Paisley, who has called for the chief's resignation. And Sir John, a noted disciplinarian who was knighted in the British New Year's Honor List, has also taken a firm line against dissident moves within the ranks of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).

In particular, he recently criticized the Police Federation, which represents middle and lower ranking officers, for discussing the formation of an extra security force.

Disagreements within the federation, including this one with Sir John, now have led to its chairman, Alan Wright, resigning while pledging his support for the chief constable.

Discussion of the proposal to establish the additional security force, similar to the old ''B-specials'' disbanded 12 years ago, took place at a Police Federation meeting last November. It was defeated 9-2. However, a motion of no confidence in Sir John (taken in his absence) was defeated by only one vote.

The meeting coincided with the November period of high community tension after the Provisional wing of the illegal Irish Republican Army (IRA) murdered an Official Unionist member of Parliament (MP), the Rev. Robert Bradford.

This was also the time when Mr. Paisley announced the formation of his own self-styled ''Third Force'' of some 5,000 Protestant volunteers to combat the IRA.

Sir John, in a subsequent letter to the federation chairman, said that the discussion on the ''extra force'' had been ''manifestly improper'' and had been ''highly damaging to the RUC.''

He made the contents of his letter public only hours before Mr. Paisley revealed the details of the federation's November meeting. At a press conference Mr. Paisley again called on Sir John to resign and claimed that the narrow defeat of the vote of no confidence showed that the chief constable did not have the support of the force.

Meanwhile, as the battle of words between Sir John and Mr. Paisley was continuing, the federation held another meeting. It criticized the unauthorized publication of its November minutes and expressed regret over the chief constable's comments.

Subsequently, Mr. Wright, the chairman, resigned and said that he could not stand by and see the RUC ''being torn asunder.''

He also said that he regretted that the latest statement of the federation had been ''politically exploited'' and denied that either he or the federation were opposed to the chief constable.

Now that the smoke has cleared several points stand out:

1. Sir John is still firmly in command.

2. The federation is temporarily without a chairman.

3. Mr. Paisley's opposition to the chief constable has not abated.

So the battle is on for the soul of the RUC as to whether it should remain a totally impartial force, which the majority of policemen and policewomen desire, or whether it should reflect more of the Paisleyite views held by a section of the Protestant population at large.

If the wrangling continues the main losers will be the police themselves, who have worked hard to establish their impartiality, and the public which needs to retain confidence in their police.

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