By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Details of the Irish and British governments’ take-it-or-leave-it package to rescue the Good Friday agreement have been leaked to the press in advance of the official publication of the proposals on Friday.
Although the details have yet to be finalized, informed speculation is that the proposals will include the following:
€ indemnity for loyalist and republican fugitives against prosecution on outstanding paramilitary charges (affecting, in the main, republicans still "on the run");
€ republican and loyalist ex-prisoners would be eligible for membership of the proposed District Policing Partnerships, which will meet with the new police service;
€ a judge will be appointed, with limited investigatory powers, to decide whether there should be full international inquiries into the murders of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and Robert Hamill. The same judge would decide on the merits of holding inquiries into allegations of Garda collusion with the IRA.
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€ instead of a majority of its 19 members, only the approval of eight members of the new Police Board would be required to order an inquiry into current police actions.
€ there would be enhanced powers for the police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan.
€ the powers of the Policing Board would be strengthened.
€ the RUC name would remain in the "title deeds" of the Police Act but be non-operational only.
€ there would be a program of demilitarization;
€ the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries would decide how arms should be verifiably be put beyond use in conjunction with the International Commission on Decommissioning.
€ although a ban on plastic bullets would not be possible, recruits to the new police service would not be trained in their use, at least in the first couple of years.
While, Northern Ireland’s political parties had been on tenterhooks waiting for details of the package, Ulster Unionists have reacted negatively to the leaked information, with Sir Reg Empey repeating that the package must deal effectively with decommissioning for it to succeed.
Before details of the package were known, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said the plan would fail if IRA weapons decommissioning does not begin shortly, and anti-agreement MP Jeffrey Donaldson said an indemnity law would be the "last nail in the coffin" for his party.
Although London and Dublin have said that the talking is over, it is believed that there are ongoing behind-the-scenes negotiations involving both the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein and that they will continue even after the plan is unveiled.
Still, at the weekend, Trimble had said that he may eventually have to admit that the process was unworkable.
"We cannot implement it fully, because the paramilitaries won’t abide by their own obligations underneath it," he said.
In response, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the British government should not "pander" to Unionists. He said the proposals made at talks in Britain two weeks ago fell far short of the 1998 pact and that, more than three years after the agreement was endorsed, many central elements had not yet been implemented.
Speaking at a press conference in Belfast, Adams said: "It is Sinn Féin’s view that the arms issue can and must be resolved.
"There is a singular fixation on IRA guns, which are silent when the UDA and other loyalists have been killing and attempting to kill. The only armed threat to the agreement is coming from these elements."
In another development, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, Professor Bryce Dixon, and the RUC chief constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, have disagreed over the force’s use of potentially lethal plastic bullets. Flanagan attacked Bryce’s suggestion that the RUC did not need plastic bullets to quell riots.
The Irish minister for Foreign Affairs, Brian Cowen, meanwhile, said he is confident that the remaining hurdles in the peace process can be overcome, in order to unlock the "tremendous potential" of the agreement for everyone on the island.
Speaking in Limerick, Cowen said proposals being drawn up by the British and Irish governments will be balanced, and will seek to deal comprehensively and honorably with the outstanding issues.
Cowen said that the four outstanding issues — policing, demilitarization, the putting of arms beyond use, and the stability of the institutions — all had their own integrity and significance, and will all have to be implemented.