By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland
BELFAST — Failure to make progress on the policing issue could force the British and Irish governments to put the Good Friday agreement in review as early as this week, it is being reported in Belfast.
However, party leaders are being invited to attend talks in London on Wednesday in what may be a last attempt to reach agreement on the contentious issues of policing, decommissioning and demilitarization.
If these make no progress, the agreement will be facing its greatest crisis since 1998. Skillful political management will be required to rescue it.
On Tuesday, in private briefings, RUC sources said the chief constable, Sir Ronnie Flanagan, would be starting a recruitment campaign later this week. More than 500 officers will have left the RUC by the end of the month and another 750 by the end of this year.
Flanagan says he cannot wait any longer for the SDLP and Sinn Fein to reach agreement with the British government on proposals for the new policing service, but the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, says it’s a "monumental mistake, the biggest of the last 10 years."
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The SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, also said the recruitment campaign was premature while talks were continuing to reach agreement on the proposals for the new service. There was continued speculation that elements in the SDLP are prepared to support the police reforms if public inquiries are granted into the deaths of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and Brian Hamill. However, the leadership is said to oppose such a move.
The UUP leader, David Trimble, said it is now urgent that new recruits be signed up and begin training after recent loyalist and republican dissident paramilitary activity. But speaking after meeting the British Northern secretary, John Reid, Adams was adamant that not enough progress had yet been made for his party to endorse the new proposals on policing.
On Monday afternoon, Unionist frustration over the SDLP and Sinn Fein’s refusal to endorse the British government’s proposals on policing spilled over at Stormont, with one UUP backbencher accusing them of a "disgraceful lack of moral courage."
Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein told the British government this week that the latest proposals on policing do not close the gap between what is on offer and the Patten Report’s 175 recommendations.
Without that gap bridged, there is no prospect of the IRA moving on decommissioning, according to republican sources, in return for a scaling down of the British military presence in the North.
If the SDLP, as seems likely, refuses to nominate members to the new Police Boards, and the IRA refuses to move on decommissioning, the UUP’s Trimble will face a volatile political backdrop to the upcoming general election campaign.
A full review of the agreement would help Trimble fend off the threat from the anti-agreement Unionists while simultaneously increasing his sanctions against Sinn Fein as a penalty for the IRA’s decision not to move on weapons. It would be preferred to a suspension of the institutions which could come following Trimble’s meeting with his party’s ruling body, set for March 17. institutions.
Blockages on police reform remain in the areas of accountability, symbols and emblems, powers of inquiry into cases like the Pat Finucane murder, the status of Special Branch and dates for the phasing out of the full and part-time RUC reserve.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly, who has been involved in the negotiations on policing, said: "The power to go back to amending legislation is with the British government and Tony Blair. We need to get the thing right."
"There is no point rushing this. Every week somebody is talking about whether there will be a summit next week or in the next few days. That is not what this is about. Yes, we have made progress, but no, we have not made enough progress."
Speaking to reporters in front of an RUC station in North Belfast, Kelly said people contemplating joining the Police Service of Northern Ireland want a new police service of which they could be proud.
"The questions which are being asked on the street by people include, if they join, will they be carrying plastic bullets or live rounds?" Kelly said.