Controversial plans to reform Northern Ireland's police force have drawn sharp recriminations from pro-British Protestants and pro-Irish Catholics alike.
The proposals - including changing the name of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to the more neutral Northern Ireland Police Service, reducing its size, and encouraging more Catholics to join the overwhelmingly Protestant force - are being likened to a bombshell that threatens to destroy former US Sen. George Mitchell's effort to rescue the flagging peace process.
The 128-page blueprint, released yesterday, was prepared by a commission led by former Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten. He has worked for the past year in the knowledge that the RUC, in its present form, does not and cannot command the respect of the entire Northern Ireland community. Mr. Patten says the proposals were certain to stir emotions, but adds, "If this is not the way forward, I simply do not know what is."
Among Catholics, many of whom want to unite with Ireland, the RUC is viewed with distrust and open hatred. But many Protestants, who consider themselves British to the core, oppose changes that appear to lessen ties to the crown, or that would bring into RUC ranks the very people the force has spent decades fighting.
Jeffrey Donaldson, a leading Protestant Unionist politician, called the proposals a "calculated insult" to past and present members of the RUC. More than 300 of its officers have been killed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Protestant extremists since 1969.
The Patten report appears less than a week after Mr. Mitchell, a key negotiator of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, opened a review of the peace process. Sources close to Mitchell voice concern the report would make it more difficult to pursue the main aim of producing a power-sharing ruling council in Northern Ireland. Ulster Unionists, whose leader, David Trimble, is designated to head the council, refuse to let members of Sinn Fein take their seats until the IRA begins handing in its weapons. Sinn Fein is the political ally of the IRA.
On Wednesday, Mitchell issued a statement saying he was "not dispirited" by rising political tensions and that he was determined to push ahead.
Leaked versions of Patten's report prompted early bitter attacks from Protestant politicians, while Sinn Fein claimed the 175 proposals did not go far enough. The plan does not satisfy a long-standing Sinn Fein demand that the RUC should be disbanded. However, a spokesman said a provision to appoint two Sinn Fein members to a police supervisory board was "a most necessary measure."
The Patten report also recommends reducing the size of the force from the current 13,000 to 7,500 officers and attempting to recruit Protestants and Catholics on an equal basis. Patten said that the goal was to have a 30 percent Catholic force within 10 years, up from the current 8 percent.
THE plan also puts emphasis on recommendations that Northern Ireland should be policed with a new human-rights-based approach and says officers should swear an oath committing them to protecting human rights.
It states: "The Northern Ireland Police Service should adopt a new badge and symbols which are entirely free from any association with either the British or Irish states." The badge - a British crown atop an Irish harp - and the practice of flying the British flag, or Union Jack, at police buildings are offensive to many Catholics.
But the Ulster Unionist Party said in a statement that the changes to policing should flow "only from an end to terrorism." It went on: "Beyond that, the only change that is really needed is to have more Catholics serving the community in the police."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society