Police Reform: Northern Ireland Good Friday Agreement

Strand Three Policing and Justice

1. The participants recognise that policing is a central issue in any society. They equally recognise that Northern Ireland’s history of deep divisions has made it highly emotive, with great hurt suffered and sacrifices made by many individuals and their families, including those in the RUC and other public servants. They believe that the agreement provides 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. They also believe that this agreement offers a unique opportunity to bring about a new political dispensation which will recognise the full and equal legitimacy and worth of the identities, senses of allegiance and ethos of all sections of the community in Northern Ireland. They consider that this opportunity should inform and underpin the development of a police service representative in terms of the make-up of the community as a whole and which, in a peaceful environment, should be routinely unarmed.

2. The participants believe it essential that policing structures and arrangements are such that the police service is professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial, free from partisan political control; accountable, both under the law for its actions and to the community it serves; representative of the society it polices, and operates within a coherent and cooperative criminal justice system, which conforms with human rights norms. The participants also believe that those structures and arrangements must be capable of maintaining law and order including responding effectively to crime and to any terrorist threat and to public order problems. A police service which cannot do so will fail to win public confidence and acceptance. They believe that any such structures and arrangements should be capable of delivering a policing service, in constructive and inclusive partnerships with the community at all levels, and with the maximum delegation of authority and responsibility, consistent with the foregoing principles. These arrangements should be based on principles of protection of human rights and professional integrity and should be unambiguously accepted and actively supported by the entire community.

3. An independent Commission will be established to make recommendations for future policing arrangements in Northern Ireland including means of encouraging widespread community support for these arrangements within the agreed framework of principles reflected in the paragraphs above and in accordance with the terms of reference at Annex A. The Commission will be broadly representative with expert and international representation among its membership and will be asked to consult widely and to report no later than Summer 1999.

Annex A: Commission on Policing For Northern Ireland

Terms of Reference

Taking account of the principles on policing as set out in the agreement, the Commission will inquire into policing in Northern Ireland and, on the basis of its findings, bring forward proposals for future policing structures and arrangements, including means of encouraging widespread community support for those arrangements.

Its proposals on policing should be designed to ensure that policing arrangements, including composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols, are such that in a new approach Northern Ireland has a police service that can enjoy widespread support from, and is seen as an integral part of, the community as a whole.

Its proposals should include recommendations covering any issues such as re-training, job placement and educational and professional development required in the transition to policing in a peaceful society.

Its proposals should also be designed to ensure that:

  • the police service is structured, managed and resourced so that it can be effective in discharging its full range of functions (including proposals on any necessary arrangements for the transition to policing in a normal peaceful society);
  • the police service is delivered in constructive and inclusive partnerships with the community at all levels with the maximum delegation of authority and responsibility;
  • the legislative and constitutional framework requires the impartial discharge of policing functions and conforms with internationally accepted norms in relation to policing standards;
  • the police operate within a clear framework of accountability to the law and the community they serve, so:
  • they are constrained by, accountable to and act only within the law;
  • their powers and procedures, like the law they enforce, are clearly established and publicly available;
  • there are open, accessible and independent means of investigating and adjudicating upon complaints against the police;
  • there are clearly established arrangements enabling local people, and their political representatives, to articulate their views and concerns about policing and to establish publicly policing priorities and influence policing policies, subject to safeguards to ensure police impartiality and freedom from partisan political control;
  • there are arrangements for accountability and for the effective, efficient and economic use of resources in achieving policing objectives;
  • there are means to ensure independent professional scrutiny and inspection of the police service to ensure that proper professional standards are maintained;
  • the scope for structured co-operation with the Garda Siochana and other police forces is addressed; and
  • the management of public order events which can impose exceptional demands on policing resources is also addressed.

The Commission should focus on policing issues, but if it identifies other aspects of the criminal justice system relevant to its work on policing, including the role of the police in prosecution, then it should draw the attention of the Government to those matters.

The Commission should consult widely, including with non-governmental expert organisations, and through such focus groups as they consider it appropriate to establish.

The Government proposes to establish the Commission as soon as possible, with the aim of it starting work as soon as possible and publishing its final report by Summer 1999.

Implementation History


Minimum Implementation

The Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland also known as the Patten Commission began work shortly after its establishment on 3 June 3, 1998. Chris Patten chaired the eight-member Independent Commission. The commission’s main responsibility was to carry out a fundamental review of the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and recommend proposals for a new policing service that is “professional, effective and efficient, fair and impartial, free from partisan political control; accountable, both under the law for its actions and to the community it serves; representative of the society it polices, and operates within a coherent and cooperative criminal justice system, which conforms with human rights norms.” The commission organized a number of public and private meetings with youth groups. Estimated 10,000 people attended the public meetings with over 1,000 speaking. The commission also received more than approximately 2,500 individual written submission.1


Minimum Implementation

In May/June 1999 the commission carried out a public opinion survey to understand public attitudes regarding policing in Northern Ireland. The commission also visited various places including a number of police services in Great Britain, South Africa, Spain, and the United States. On 9 September 1999, the Independent Commission on Policing in Northern Ireland submitted its report and made recommendations on issues related to human rights, accountability, policing with the community, structure of the police force, size of the police service, composition of the police service, and other issues. The commission made 175 recommendations.2 The unionist political reactions to the report and its recommendations were not positive.3


Minimum Implementation

As per the recommendation of the commission, an Oversight Commissioner was appointed in May 2000. The government published the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill on 16 May 2000, which was criticized by the SDLP and Sinn Fein. Amendments were made in the bill to address some of SDLP and Sinn Fein’s concerns to get their support for the Bill. The Bill received the Royal Assent on 23 November 2000. 


Minimum Implementation

Regarding implementation of the Patten Commission’s recommendations, Secretary of State John Reid published a 75-page long policing plan on 17 August 2001. The plan detailed progress made in areas of Ombudsman, appointment of an Oversight Commissioner, reduction in the police size as well as selecting new recruits on a 50:50 basis. A new Policing Board was set up in September. On 4 November 2001, Royal Ulster Constabulary changed its name to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. On 12 December, the Police Board also changed a badge for the new service and emblem.4


Intermediate Implementation

Significant progress was made in terms of implementing Patten Commission’s recommendations. The first batch of recruits to the Police Service of Northern Ireland graduated in April 2002.5 Nevertheless, it was reported that some Catholic recruits received “actual intimidation.” Other reforms such as community policing and overhauling Special Branch lagged behind in terms of their implementation as suggested by Oversight Commissioner, Tom Constantine. Therefore, Britain revealed plans for increased police reform in November 2002.6

  • 5. "First recruits to new Northern Ireland police graduate amid political bickering", Associated Press, April 5, 2002.
  • 6. "Britain reveals plans for increased police reforms in Northern Ireland", Associated Press Worldstream, November 25, 2002.

Full Implementation

A revised police act received a royal assent on 8 April 2003. In his detailed report, Oversight Commissioner Tom Constantine detailed progress s on 175 recommendations of the Patten Commission and suggested that most of the goals had been achieved, including the adoption of a new name, badges and uniforms.7

  • 7. "Northern Ireland police reform making 'excellent progress,' U.S. overseer says", Associated Press, December 10, 2003.

Full Implementation

While substantial police reform was achieved after the Patten Commission and its recommendations, Sinn Fein boycotted police reform with allegation of a significant gap between the original 1999 reform plan and the action taken by the British Government.8

  • 8. "Sinn Fein slowing Northern Ireland police reform, Canadian overseer says", Associated Press, April 27, 2004.

Full Implementation

No developments observed this year.


Full Implementation

No developments observed this year.


Full Implementation

Sinn Fein had demanded for the prompt and unconditional transfer of power to Northern Ireland. In February 2010 the hardliner Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein reached a deal and voted unanimously to approve a devolution bill that paved the way for the transfer of judicial and policing powers.9 A 13,000 strong police force is now reduced to 7,050 as of 2012 of which 30.41 % are Roman Catholic and 67.36% are Protestant. Also, the new police force contains 26.82% female officers.10