Chief Constable George Hamilton uses Patten anniversary to make one of most significant interventions in 15 years
The Patten Report that consigned the RUC to history and ushered in the PSNI is 15 years old today. George Hamilton uses the anniversary to make one of the most significant interventions by a chief constable since 1999 about what lies ahead for policing. Brian Rowan reports.
Fifteen years ago, Ronnie Flanagan was chief constable of the RUC and within the policing structure there was an authority, rather than a board.
But, on September 9, 1999, that policing world began to change with the sweeping reforms that came in the Patten Report.
The new-era politics of the Good Friday Agreement would also mean new policing and Flanagan was crucial in that transition from the RUC to the now PSNI.
Colin Cramphorn, Sir Hugh Orde and Matt Baggott followed as chief constables. George Hamilton currently sits in the highest of the policing chairs.
"The critical success story, from a policing perspective, is the full implementation of the human rights framework," Mr Hamilton said.
And, as he put Patten into today's context, he spoke also on the important recommendations on accountability that brought into the frame the new Policing Board and the office of Police Ombudsman.
But he knows and accepts that Patten wasn't just about name and structural changes. The commission had to peer into a kind of crystal ball to try to see the new policing environment and how it might look inside a developing and imperfect peace.
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And that meant a numbers judgment that took into consideration the tensions in a post-conflict society and tried to envisage a policing circumstance that didn't have to think about IRA and loyalist violence.
In that situation, Patten set the police numbers at 7,500. "However, today, we have an ongoing, severe threat from violent dissident republicans and we are operating with a police officer strength of 6,600," Mr Hamilton said.
With Policing Board and Department of Justice support, the intention is to add close to 400 to that number. But the new chief constable understands and recently highlighted the realities of budget pressures and a squeeze that is being felt within policing.
So, he has to think not just about what has changed, but also "what wasn't in Patten" – and what that means in the reality of today's circumstances.
"It was silent on dealing with the past," he said of that 15-year-old commission report. "Patten didn't take account of that in terms of size, structure and the role of the Police Service."
Mr Hamilton was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph after delivering a weekend speech at the British-Irish Association in Oxford.
And, there, the chief constable deliberately – some might argue controversially – stepped on the eggshell that is a past of unsolved killings and unanswered questions.
He knows, of course, that there is a policing role, but also that there is a political responsibility that has not yet been met.
One veteran commentator described his speech as being couched in the language of "tough love".
"To talk about the future, we must be ready to talk about the past," Mr Hamilton told his audience. "Judicial closure is increasingly unlikely in the majority of cases."
These were words delivered in a debate within which policing and politics are the two sides of the one coin. They are inextricably linked and the past needs an initiative that is not just about investigation.
Indeed, Mr Hamilton made specific reference to the comments of the Attorney General, John Larkin, last November, when he said he believed a line should be drawn under all Troubles-era investigations.
"To continue to ignore, hesitate, or procrastinate, on the past will have unpredictable and far-reaching consequences. It requires all of us to be selfless, to go beyond our comfort zones and have challenging conversations, such as the one initiated by the Attorney General almost a year ago."
And, just hours after delivering that speech, Mr Hamilton told me: "I think we need to have the proper discussions before it's too late."
However challenging and difficult, those discussions have to include the processes and proposals of Eames/Bradley and Haass/O'Sullivan and the thinking outlined by Mr Larkin.
And that weekend Hamilton speech is probably the most significant intervention by a chief constable since the words of Hugh Orde more than a decade ago.
Back then, Orde said, "We need to close the book. It's how you close the book in a way that allows victims to come to terms with closing the book and have some sort of satisfaction.
"That is not a policing issue. That is a far wider issue, but policing will be shackled by it unless people grip that issue."
Fifteen years after Patten, that unsolved, unanswered past has not been gripped, but rather is still being used as a political battleground on which policing and victims are being battered. So, however controversial, Hamilton was right to speak and to be heard on this issue.
He and his senior team have the task of shaping the next phase of new policing. Tomorrow, interviews for the deputy chief constable post will be held with a choice to be made between Drew Harris (right) and Will Kerr (far left) – both currently at assistant chief constable rank in the PSNI.
The decision is a matter for the Policing Board and, once made, Hamilton can reshuffle his team and set direction for the next steps.
But, all these years after Patten, new policing still operates in some of the old environment. That dissident threat that Mr Hamilton highlighted means intelligence and MI5 are still necessary ingredients.
It still means hidden, or covert, operations. In some places, it means policing at a distance from the community. And it still means armoured vehicles and guns, still having to check under cars for bombs and having to think about where the next bullet or attack might come.
Patten, like the new politics, wasn't a magic wand. It was and is a process, something that will take time and constant thinking.
And just as the past can't be left to policing, so there needs to be wider conversations on issues such as the dissident threat and contentious marches.
Fifteen years after Patten, there are real questions for the communities and for governments and politicians. How much do they want new politics and policing? And how much are they prepared to contribute to achieving those goals?
In a recent interview, the academic Jonny Byrne said that good policing needs good politics. But is that what we have on Stormont's hill?
Delivering change is not about sitting back and constantly scrutinising what the police are doing. It is also about what others are not doing.
And that takes all of us back to that question: how much do we want new politics and policing?
Fifteen years after Patten, that answer is still needed.