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Royal Ulster Constabulary

Volume 268: debated on Thursday 7 December 1995

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To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what proportion of the Royal Ulster Constabulary is known to be (a) Protestant and (b) Catholic. [3040]

At 1 November 1995, 89 per cent. of the Royal Ulster Constabulary regular force, 88 per cent. of the full-time reserve and 93 per cent. of the part-time reserve were perceived to be from the Protestant community, whilst 8 per cent. of the regular force, 6 per cent. of the full-time reserve and 5 per cent. of the part-time reserve were perceived to be from the Catholic community.

Does the Minister agree that, until the RUC reflects the balance of the communities in Northern Ireland, problems will continue? If the Government were able rapidly to present plans to achieve a better balance in the RUC, that might be a major argument in favour of decommissioning, which would reassure nationalists.

I do not agree with the supposition that it is necessary to change the religious characteristics of the RUC to achieve that balance. The evidence points the other way. Now that we have a ceasefire however, more Roman Catholics are seeking to join the RUC.

Perhaps I might remind the House that, during the 25 years o1 violence, one of the major reasons why members of the Catholic population did not seek to join the RUC was the fact that 297 RUC officers were killed and more than 7,300 injured and the Roman Catholic police officer was specifically targeted. Those days, I hope, are now behind us.

Is not it the case that, throughout the years of violence, support for the RUC was remarkably strong? Has not that support increased significantly on both sides of the political community divide since the ceasefires?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The latest opinion survey shows that more than three quarters of the population—some 78 per cent.—thought the police to be helpful in dealing with ordinary policing problems. The Catholic population were only just less positive in their overall assessment of the helpfulness of the RUC than the Protestants, in whose case the figure was 81 per cent.

The House and the people of Northern Ireland will be encouraged by the Minister's reply. Does not the increased Roman Catholic membership of the RUC demonstrate that the RUC is becoming more acceptable throughout Northern Ireland, and belie the campaign by Sinn Fein and its fellow travellers for the crown on the RUC badge, or the word "Royal", to be removed if the RUC is to become acceptable?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. All the evidence in Northern Ireland suggests that the constabulary is serving the whole community of Northern Ireland. It is increasingly successful in community affairs, and is addressing the concerns of the population. There is no need to change its basic characteristics to obtain support.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, whether it is Catholic or Protestant, the RUC enjoys the utmost admiration among my constituents—and, I believe, among those of most hon. Members?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The RUC has a tremendous reputation, built over 25 years of terrorist violence and, because of its steadfastness, it has contributed to the present peace process. The House and the country owe it a great deal.

As the Minister has said, a crucial part of the peace process in ensuring that the police force is supported and respected by all the people in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that, to achieve that consensus, it is necessary that the Police Authority for Northern Ireland should be given more powers and that the Secretary of State should reconsider the process whereby he appoints all the members of that authority?

I shall issue a White Paper on the future arrangement for that police authority, and the tri-partite arrangement in Northern Ireland, soon. The hon. Gentleman is right—the authority should echo the interests of Northern Ireland's population and have clearly defined powers to hold to account the expenditures and policy objectives of the Chief Constable of the RUC.