The walls of the fortress on Springfield Road are made of bomb-resistant concrete, faced with a double layer of brick and plated with corrugated sheets of reinforced steel. The whole structure is surrounded by a towering chain-link fence topped with rolls of razor wire, with a separate sheet of fencing over the roof to protect against high-flying mortar shells. The occupants enter through double gates of heavy-gauge steel, wearing bulletproof vests and combat helmets even when operating their tank-like armored cars.
That's all considered normal along this bustling street in a Roman Catholic area of West Belfast, because this ugly fenced fortress is the local police station--the Springfield Road Station of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. If the fortifications aren't enough to remind RUC officers of their unwelcome status, the graffiti scrawled on a nearby wall makes the point plainly: "No RUC Scum Here! Murdering Dirt Birds."
This British province is so sharply divided along political and religious lines that even the local police have become a polarizing force. Among the 55 percent of Northern Ireland's residents who are Protestant, the constabulary is applauded and admired; to much of the Catholic minority, like the residents of Springfield Road, the cop on the beat is the enemy.
But today, an international commission offered an ambitious blueprint for change, recommending that Northern Ireland's police force get a new name, flag and badge--plus a new structure of local control and an affirmative action plan to recruit many more Catholic officers.
The eight-member commission, chaired by British politician Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, was created by last year's Good Friday peace agreement. Its 175 recommendations are almost certain to become ensnarled in the same political arguments that have brought the Good Friday plan to a point of stalemate. As a result, it's hard to say when, or even if, any of the proposals will go into effect.
Patten's commission included police experts from four countries--two were Americans--and made dozens of proposals about police methodology, organization, armament and control framework. But the items that provoked the loudest initial response were more symbolic than substantive.
The very name Royal Ulster Constabulary is provocative here, evoking memories of the Royal Irish Constabulary, the dreaded "Black-and-Tans" who ruled Ireland with an iron hand in the last days of British sovereignty over the whole of the island. Accordingly, the commission recommended changing the name of the force to Northern Ireland Police Service. It said the police should stop flying the British flag at their stations, remove the British crown from their badge and strike the pledge of fealty to the queen from the oath of office.
These changes were immediately endorsed by the Social Democratic and Labor Party, the largest primarily Catholic party here. But David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, the largest Protestant party, blasted the name change as "a gratuitous insult to the RUC and the community."
The more concrete proposals in the Patten report were designed to make the local police seem more a part of the community and less like an alien force to Catholics. "Policing cannot be fully effective when the police have to operate from fortified stations in armored vehicles and when police officers dare not tell their children what they do for a living," the report said.
The key recommendation for this purpose was to make the force more representative of the population's religious divide. Today, the RUC is 92 percent Protestant. Patten proposed preferential hiring--requiring a change in Britain's equal-opportunity laws--so that one new Catholic officer is signed up for each new Protestant.
The force should conduct extensive personnel exchanges with the Republic of Ireland and other countries to get more Catholic officers on the street, the panel said. The report also said that Catholic groups here must stop intimidating young people to prevent them from joining the police.
To "take the politics out of policing," Patten said, it will also be necessary to create a civilian police authority to govern the force, with membership from major political parties. The current force is essentially controlled by the British government in London. Because of intense cross-community distrust here, the panel also said there should be a separate international overseer who is neither British nor Irish.
The plan foresees a cut in the size of the police force from about 13,000 to 7,500. But this is one of the least likely recommendations to be achieved, because it would not occur until the various paramilitary groups associated with the opposing sides have all forsworn violence.
Some Catholics here, and many Irish American leaders, have regularly denounced the RUC for using plastic bullets as a nonlethal tool of riot control. One outspoken critic of the RUC, Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), has called the plastic bullets "brutal."
But the Patten commission concluded that the plastic bullets actually indicate restraint on the part of the RUC, compared with most other police forces. "We concluded that the only real alternative to plastic bullets is to fire live rounds," said panel member Kathleen O'Toole, the former Massachusetts secretary of public safety, "and that would of course be more injurious."