INTO THE tense showdown over the Northern Ireland peace accord has now been injected a potential deal maker: a full set of proposals for a new police regime intended, in the words of chief drafter Chris Patten, to "take the politics out of policing." There can be no guarantee that the Patten plan will keep Ulster's polarized Protestant and Catholic communities from surrendering to despair. But the timely appearance of practical proposals that treat a problem at the heart of their dispute offers an opportunity the parties could not be forgiven for missing.
The Royal Ulster Constabulary, or RUC, the name of the British-run police force in Northern Ireland, is considered by many Protestants there as a bastion of their link to Britain and by many Catholics as an arm of Protestant repression. Its centrality as an issue made its reform a necessary part of last year's Good Friday peace accord, which set up the commission that has reported in now.
The commission recommends that the police get a new un-British name, badge, flag and oath, a new structure of some community rather than exclusively British control and an affirmative action plan intended to bring up Catholic officers from the current nominal 8 percent to 30 percent in 10 years. The point is to make the police a professional force and the respected protector of the whole population.
The principal party representing the province's Protestants at once decried the prospective loss of the symbols of the British connection -- the name and the rest. Mr. Patten, former governor of Hong Kong, replied that you cannot take the politics out of policing "if the symbols of policing are themselves political statements." The largest primarily Catholic party endorsed the changes, but many Catholics question whether the now Protestant-dominated police can be sufficiently reformed to protect them. Some part of the Irish nationalist right cites that fear to justify the Irish Republican Army's refusal to disarm -- a position responsible in good measure for the near-collapse of the peace process.
The completion of the Patten report puts a strong card in the hand of once-again mediator George Mitchell. This is the promise of the proposed Northern Ireland Police Service.