The siren of distress is once more sounding in the Northern Ireland peace process, thanks largely to the Ulster Unionist Party’s demands on the British government to dilute the police-reform package that is being prepared for parliamentary consideration.
That package was supposed to have been based on the recommendations of the Patten Commission’s review of policing, which proposed a series of measures, including changing the force’s name, in order to make it acceptable to both communities in Northern Ireland. Now there are fears that the British are once more backtracking.
Following a fraught meeting on Tuesday between the SDLP and the Northern Ireland secretary of state, Peter Mandelson, the party’s deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, angrily denounced what he called "government by concession."
The SDLP is alarmed by what it sees as Mandelson’s willingness to dilute vital aspects of the Patten recommendations, including provisions for policing boards with real powers, and an ombudsman with a statutory base. But it is the issue of the name that has caused the greatest controversy. Unionists have been demanding that "RUC" be retained in some form or else they threaten they will not endorse a return to devolved government at the upcoming meeting of the party’s ruling body, the Ulster Unionist Council, on Saturday.
A BBC reporter asked one leading Unionist if the name change had become the new decommissioning? He did not answer.
The most alarming aspect of this descent into crisis is the role being played by UUP leader, David Trimble. He has once more shown a lack of trust in his ability to lead his party to accept the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement.
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Indeed, 10 days ago, he was handed a major concession by the IRA when it agreed to expose its arms dumps to inspection as a beginning of the process of putting its weapons beyond use. Both governments and the majority of people hoped that this would be enough to allow the power-sharing government, which had beeb suspended since February, to be reinstituted. It caught the "No men" in the unionist ranks completely by surprise.
It is now clear that Trimble failed to exploit the disarray in the ranks of the rejectionists. Instead, he prevaricated. There were issues that had to be clarified, of course. But he allowed the "No campaign" to gather momentum, using the the RUC name change as its new shibboleth, and pushing the British government to begin a "drip feed" of concessions, as Mallon put it, in an effort to shore up the UUP leader, as it has done so often before.
Britain, it would seem, has once more threatened to compromise the integrity of the agreement in order to save Trimble from his own party. It is a vicious circle as it undermines the very process that saving Trimble is supposed to facilitate. This could spell disaster for the whole peace process, which only last week looked like it was at last close to realizing its full potential..
The Unionists have politicized the issue of policing by their insistence on retaining the name. The whole point of Patten was to depoliticize policing in Northern Ireland, and that meant changing the name, which was identified so strongly with the Unionist ethos.
Signifcantly, senior RUC officers, including the chief constable, Ronnie Flanagan, have warned the Unionists not to play politics with the police. That warning, as with much else, has been ignored by Trimble and his party, to the detriment of the efforts to reform the police and to the whole peace process.
The British government is at fault for allowing the issue of policing to become a political football. Acceptable policing is not something that can be tossed back and forth from one party to the next, between Orange and Green. It is a necessary goal in itself, without which the stability of any society cannot be guaranteed. The quality of the service is not dependent on symbols linking it to a particular political party. But it is dependent on the ability to recruit officers from all parts of the community so that it is seen to represent the society it polices. If it does not, then its policing will be ineffective.
Quite correctly, the SDLP have hung tough on this issue, knowing it is fundamental to any hope of creating a decent, nonsectarian society in the North.