The uneasy truce in West Belfast. Police battle deep distrust of Catholic community

There is an uneasy truce between the police and local residents in the Spring Hill Road section of west Belfast. It's one of the urban neighborhoods where the credibility of Northern Ireland's police, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, is at its lowest. The RUC's presence is barely tolerated and policemen's lives are on the line when they patrol the predominantly Roman Catholic area.

``This isn't a `no go' area for the police,'' insists Ray Lidster, a local resident. ``But when they do come, it's always with soldiers in front and back.''

``They're not patrolling to protect us,'' said his sister. ``They just want to keep an eye on us.''

It is in such war-torn neighborhoods - where communal divisions are sharply drawn and unemployment exceeds 50 percent - that the RUC's mission is most at stake.

The constabulary has the task of keeping the peace in Northern Ireland. It must maintain a presence or abdicate responsibility for policing such areas of Catholic west Belfast to the extremist outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA). But it must also protect its men from hostile citizens.

The RUC's conduct has always been a source of controversy, and in recent weeks its policies have again been debated in Parliament in London.

Chief Constable John Hermon has been criticized for changing a long-standing policy by keeping his men out of sight during last week's funerals of slain IRA members. Many have said this opened the way for the violence in which five were killed and dozens injured.

The RUC's change in tactics was made under pressure from the Catholic clergy in Northern Ireland and the Irish government in Dublin.

With a strength of some 8,500 men, the RUC is backed up by some 10,000 British troops and 6,500 Ulster Defense Regiment militiamen. If life is to return to normal in Northern Ireland, the RUC must improve its reputation as an impartial law enforcement agency.

The RUC has had a proud history and Irish policemen from its ranks have served in British territories around the world. But it also has a history of association with the Protestant majority in the province, and it has sometimes acted brutally in the past in suppressing Catholic opposition to British rule.

Those who have actively supported the cause of republicanism have often a deep-rooted suspicion and even hatred of the force.

The police are an easy target for he extremist Irish Republican Army and are frequently its victims.

``It's normal for policemen to get killed,'' said a Protestant teen-ager considering joining the force.

Some Belfast residents say elements of the RUC cooperate with Protestant paramilitary forces such as the Ulster Defense Association and affiliated extremist groups such as the Ulster Volunteer Force.

Since the mid-1970s, the strength of the RUC has been increased and the role of the British Army was diminished. The police force has also undergone major reform and reorganization to make it more neutral and professional. Some observers say the RUC's reputation has improved under the leadership of Sir John Herman as chief constable, despite recent accusations he obstructed an investigation by ex-policeman John Stalker into an alleged ``shoot-to-kill'' policy dating from four years ago.

But RUC membership remains 90 percent Protestant, and attempts to increase the numbers of Catholic recruits have had little success, according to an RUC spokesman.

``In all my life in this country there's been no change in the policies of the RUC,'' Mr. Lidster said. ``What they say in the papers and what they do on the streets are two different things.''

But the Lidsters live on the front-line of communal strife and may not have noticed the changes. One positive measure of confidence in the police has been the increased numbers of callers reporting evidence and incidents to police ``hot lines.'' Police say the numbers have increased by 50 percent in recent months before the most recent violence began.

Some observers say the biggest challenge to the police is along the border with the Republic of Ireland. In the open fields and back roads of the Irish countryside, the IRA and loyalist paramilitary forces can operate more freely than in urban areas. The IRA smuggles much of the weapons and explosives from the Ireland, and its members have traditionally sought refuge in the south.

The RUC and the army will not publicly discuss their security policy, but they do mount large forces for special operations when necessary.

There will be an unusual meeting tomorrow between the heads of the two security forces, under the auspices of the Anglo-Irish accord, to discuss problems arising from the recent incidents.

The accord gives to Ireland a consultative role in the governing of Northern Ireland.

Irish government sources in Dublin said that after last weekend's murder of two British soldiers, they had to sit down again to talk about cross-border security with the RUC.

But the cooperation between Britain and Ireland remains an uneasy one which extremists on both sides would like to undermine.

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