Police (Northern Ireland) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:30 pm on 8th November 2000.

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Photo of Lord Falconer of Thoroton Lord Falconer of Thoroton Minister of State, Cabinet Office 9:30 pm, 8th November 2000

My Lords, it is right that we should have spent a good deal time considering issues of symbolism. Names, emblems and uniforms are important issues for many organisations, but they are of particular significance and sensitivity for police officers and others who are called on to maintain public tranquillity and enforce the law on behalf of the whole community and who generate a strong collective bond and loyalty to their organisation in the process.

Our starting point has to be the Good Friday agreement, where all the signatories recognise that it provided,

"the opportunity for a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole".

The dilemma which the Patten commission had to face--it is one with which the Government have had to grapple subsequently--is how to deliver that new beginning and achieve the cross-community support that we all seek without in any way diminishing or dishonouring the extraordinary achievements of the RUC, particularly over the past 30 years, when it has come under sustained and wicked attack from ruthless terrorist organisations.

A decent argument has been advanced by several noble Lords that the root cause of the current imbalance in community support for the RUC has little or nothing to do with its name, badge or flag and is due instead to intimidation by republicans. Set against that view are the many representations that have been made to the Government that the existing symbols would continue to be a barrier to the recruitment of many law-abiding Catholics, even if paramilitary intimidation were a thing of the past. Whatever the precise truth, the hard question that we have to face is what will most effectively mark the new beginning that we seek and offer the best chance of securing it and achieving support from across the community.

Painful though it undoubtedly is, the Government's conclusion is that a new beginning requires a new name and that a new name requires a new badge. If it could have been done otherwise without those symbolic changes, we wouldcertainly have done so, as the Secretary of State has said many times. We honour and revere the sacrifices of the past, but we also have to demonstrate the courage to start a new chapter with new symbols designed to command the loyalty and respect of all law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland.

Undoubtedly, the best outcome will be if the new Policing Board can, on a cross-community basis, agree a new emblem and a service flag based on it for the new Northern Ireland Police Service. That is not an impossible hope. In as much as there are any precedents, they point both ways. On the one hand, the Northern Ireland Executive was not able to agree arrangements for flag-flying over government buildings--hence the flags order that the House approved last week. On the other hand, the Northern Ireland Assembly was able to agree an emblem that was acceptable to unionists, nationalists and republicans alike.

It is consistent with our approach to devolution, under which local people attempt to reach their own solutions to problems rather than having them imposed by the Government, that we should be hesitant about prescribing the outcome in advance. I urge the House to exercise great caution over concluding that it ought to predetermine the outcome, particularly as that would inevitably be seen by one side as a partisan decision favouring the other tradition.