The deputy first minister and a leading member of the SDLP, Seamus Mallon, sent up a verbal distress signal last week. People should pay attention.
What he termed the "minimizing" of the Patten recommendations on police reform could, he warned, sink the whole enterprise known as the Good Friday agreement. He blamed Peter Mandelson, the British minister in charge of Northern Ireland, for failing to draft the legislation that lives up to Patten. Mandelson, he said, could not be trusted and had forfeited the confidence of the nationalist community.
His words were harsh, some think intemperate. But they are the words of a man who knows what he is talking about — who knows when it is time to get concerned.
The Peter Mandelsons come to Northern Ireland, stay a few years, and usually go back to higher postings in London, leaving the natives to get on with it. There have been a stream of them since 1972, good, bad and indifferent. But Mallon lives there, in the heart of the nationalist community. He must face the consequences of his political acts every day, for the rest of his life. So when he says the police bill as it stands currently will not be acceptable to young nationalists, the Mandelsons of this world should take notice. He is not making it up.
His criticisms of the bill as a watering down of Patten cannot be dismissed easily. He never called for the disbandment of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Throughout his career, he has condemned violence against police officers as he has against anybody else. He has stood up to the paramilitary menace. He has striven for reconciliation not confrontation as the means to create a just and equable society in the northeastern corner of Ireland.
And, as he stressed when he spoke in New York last week, a key factor in achieving that reconciliation is getting the police force right.
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During his speech, he quoted the agreement, which promised "a new beginning to policing in Northern Ireland with a police service capable of attracting and sustaining support from the community as a whole."
Measured against this standard, he finds the police bill now wending its way through the British legislature wanting. He alleges that there are too many compromises — on the name, on the powers of the new policing board and police ombudsman, on the flags and symbols and on the oversight process.
All of these have to be addressed before any young nationalist will want to join the new service.
Seamus Mallon is not given to crying "wolf." A breakdown now, because of what he termed "a failure of the imagination" on the part of London, would leave nationalists embittered and alienated, convincing many that the hope for a new beginning held out in the agreement has been thrown away.
There is still time to avoid this disaster. But to do so requires being true to the vision that was expressed in the agreement signed in April 1998.