The Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, clearly believes that attack is the best form of defense, judging by his recent statements aimed at the SDLP and their attitude to his Police Bill. Unfortunately, while it might be a useful principle for winning a war, it is not the way to conduct a peace process.
Mandelson has warned that if the SDLP does not nominate representatives to the new police board, then the whole program of reforming the force — so essential to the success of the Good Friday agreement and, indeed, the peace process itself — may have to be shelved. He denied there was any threat in this but then followed it up with another statement saying that the SDLP’s continued reluctance to join the board would "torpedo" the peace process.
If that were to happen, and the agreement goes down, Mandelson warned, the SDLP would be held responsible.
It should by now be apparent to the Northern Ireland secretary that if you show nationalists a hoop and tell them they must jump through it, they will not do so. In fact, it will most probably have the opposite effect.
The latest "warning" is a case in point. By publicly putting the SDLP under such pressure, Mandelson has made it almost impossible for the party to concede the very thing he wants. The SDLP has to begin with genuine doubts about the police bill and cannot appear supine on this vital issue with Sinn Fein breathing down its neck and a British general election around the corner.
Mandelson has taken up this idea that political considerations are tainting the SDLP’s attitude toward the nascent police force and should not be allowed to do so. To many in the nationalist community this criticism will appear strange indeed, if not down right hypocritical. After all, they have witnessed Mandelson bending over backward to ensure that David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader, stays in power. Political considerations have dictated Trimble’s response to the police reforms at every turn as he has tried to appease his right wing by adopting a hard-line attitude.
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Of course, SDLP members deny that "political" considerations are influencing their critique of the proposed new force and stress that the problems they have with it are substantive. But why should the SDLP, anxious about losing ground to Sinn Fein, not have the right to defend its electoral base and ensure its survival with similar pragmatism as that of the UUP?
The problem is that the secretary of state seems to show much more sensitivity to the plight of Trimble and his Unionist supporters than he does to the situation faced by the SDLP. This is another reason why nationalists have been alienated by Mandelson’s approach and feel that he is not only the master reelection strategist for Prime Minister Tony Blair but also for David Trimble.
Days of decision lie ahead that could make or break the agreement. Fortunately, there is room for optimism. The IRA has repeated its commitment to resolving the arms issue once and for all. It could start the process very simply by picking up the telephone and calling General de Chastelain — the chairman of the decommissioning body — and tell him it will reengage. For their part, the British could make a serious and substantial demilitarization gesture, thus demonstrating their faith in the peace process. But in the meantime, it is not helpful for Mandelson to militarize his language — or his tactics — in the struggle to bring about these peaceful developments.