Belfast Telegraph

There are battles to be won before police guns fall silent

Sinn Fein may demand an end to plastic bullets but much must happen on the ground first, says Brian Rowan

More than 10 years on, we are still dealing with the politics of Patten; those reforms that marched the RUC off stage to be replaced by the PSNI.

A decade later there are still arguments over what was meant in the writing of the change recommendations. The term 'creative ambiguity' was used to define the Good Friday Agreement - and the same description is easily applied to many of the other negotiations.

On the specifics of policing, Sinn Fein in recent days has raised a number of serious concerns - among them that an intelligence 'dark side' continues to contaminate the new beginning.

An article written by the party's national chairperson Declan Kearney, and published in this newspaper, was quickly followed by statements from Gerry Kelly.

The first was on the goal of achieving a routinely unarmed policing service; the second was on plastic bullets and what is viewed as a blatant double-standard.

That is a reference to police tactics here compared to those in England during the summer riots. The police - including former PSNI chief constable and now president of the Association of Chief Police Officers Sir Hugh Orde - will give you their arguments.

This is that circumstances are different; that in England the police were dealing with hit-and-run looters and rioters - that the situation was always on the move - whereas in Northern Ireland the police are faced by a static crowd, often at flashpoint interfaces.

The police will argue that the threat they face is different; on occasions it can include live fire and blast-bombs and that plastic bullets can create a gap between the police and the danger.

The policing argument is that plastic bullets are last resort but that doesn't wash with Gerry Kelly, who in a recent interview described their use as "willy-nilly".

But what did Patten recommend? He did not say there should be a ban on plastic bullets, but, in measured words, suggested: "An immediate and substantial investment should be made in a research programme to find an acceptable, effective and less potentially lethal alternative to the plastic baton round (PBR)".

That was the summary of the recommendation; the Patten team said they would like to see the use of PBRs "discontinued as soon as possible".

"All of us began our work wanting to be able to recommend that they be dispensed with straight away," the report reads. "But we do not wish to see a situation in which the police would have no choice but to resort to live rounds, sooner than would be the case today.

"For as long as the community in Northern Ireland contains elements prepared to use lethal weapons against the police, such situations would certainly arise."

So there was an important context on this issue of plastic bullets - and also on the goal of achieving an unarmed police service.

"The question of moving towards the desired objective of a routinely unarmed police service should be periodically reviewed in the light of developments in the security environment," the report read.

Patten realised all of this would take time and there are still two barriers in the way of that report achieving its aims: the dissident threat and the battles over parades.

So the unfinished work that relates to Patten reads onto the ground. What more can communities and political leaders do to create an environment in which police guns and plastic bullets are no longer needed?

It is a challenge that reaches into both the nationalist/republican and the unionist/loyalist communities. And it is about the people as much as it is about the chief constable and his officers and political leaders.

If the dissident threat disappears, then so should the guns and the 'dark side'. And if the parades issue can be settled, then those riot-control tactics become part of the past.

Yes, they are big ifs. But Patten wasn't just looking at the police when he and his team set out their vision and wrote those carefully considered words.

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