Police (Northern Ireland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 8th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Dubs Lord Dubs Chair of Labour Peers 6:45 pm, 8th November 2000

My Lords, it is clear that this debate goes to the heart of many of the issues affecting Northern Ireland. To me, it is a matter of great regret that in this House there is no voice to represent democratic constitutional nationalism for Northern Ireland. That would bring balance to our debate and would ensure that we were able to hear directly the voice of a large group of people in Northern Ireland who have serious concerns about the way in which their communities have been policed over the past 30 to 50 years.

If I were an officer in the RUC, my reaction to this debate would be, "For heaven's sake, get on with the Bill. Get it out of the way. We don't want to be a political football any more". The officers of the RUC, of whom I have met quite a few over the years, just want to be able to get on with their jobs. They do not want to become an element in party politics. They do not want to be kicked around by politicians, which has been going on since the Patten report was published; indeed, even before that. They simply want to do their jobs. However, as with all police officers everywhere, they want to be able to do their jobs knowing that they have the consent and support of the communities which they are policing. It seems to me as regards the average RUC officer, who is dedicated, brave and professional, that we are asking a great deal of them when we ask them to police areas of Northern Ireland where they are not operating with the consent of the people in the local community.

I understand that surveys have shown that Catholics are supportive of the RUC. However, they do not demonstrate support to the same extent as Protestants. Catholic communities do not have that bedrock of consent that ought to be in place in order to achieve good policing. Surely that is what Patten set out to put right and forms the basis of the Bill which the Government have put forward.

It was a great source of regret to me that, within hours of the Patten report being released--I was still a Minister in Northern Ireland at the time--shrieks and shouts of condemnation were aimed at it even before many people could have had a chance to do more than open the first page or two. That set the tone for a debate which has never been calm or sufficiently dispassionate to put first and foremost the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland. Set positions have made life in Northern Ireland difficult. They have also made policing in Northern Ireland very difficult indeed.

What matters here is this: so far as concerns policing, this is a battle for the hearts and minds of the vast majority of peaceful members of the national community. I do not believe that any Bill would persuade Sinn Fein or the IRA to say, "Wonderful. This is the best thing ever". But that is not the intention here. We need to address the constitutional nationalists; namely, the ordinary, decent, peace-loving members of the Catholic community. It is their support that we want for policing in Northern Ireland, because once their support has been secured, then the men of violence will be marginalised and those that do not like proper policing in Northern Ireland will also be marginalised.

I think that Patten addressed that intention very clearly and achieved a pretty good outcome. The Bill before the House is a reflection of it. What we want to see is a representative police service. As long as 93 per cent of police officers are Protestant, how can the average Catholic feel that this is, "our police force"? It is impossible to expect that.

No single proposal in the Patten report will change everything, and thus we have to consider all the detail. The right approach is to view the Patten proposals as a package. The different elements contained in the Patten report, as reflected in this legislation, can and will contribute to a successful conclusion. I believe that, once this legislation has been passed, it will send a clear signal to all the people of Northern Ireland that we are entering a new age when policing will be conducted with the consent of everyone. That will happen only when we get rid of the symbols, emblems and other items of a police force which indicate that it is not a force for the whole community. That is an important and worthwhile aim. A little vision is required in order to carry this through for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland. That is why I feel that these amendments are wrong in principle and damaging in practice. I hope that the House will reject them.