By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Divisions between the Ulster Unionists and the combined forces of nationalism, including the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Irish government, are continuing to deepen with both sides locked in battle over what shape the new police service will take.
The British government, nationalists said this week, is gradually whittling away proposals made in the Patten Commission’s report on policing, making it more likely that neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP will recommend that young nationalists join the new service.
The UUP deputy leader, John Taylor, entered the fray from abroad, warning in a phone call to the BBC that if the RUC’s name is removed as a result of the British government’s Police Bill, "it could mean the end of the assembly and the executive."
"We are creating a police system to serve all the people — not a police service to satisfy Sinn Fein," Taylor said.
Sinn Fein policing spokesman Gerry Kelly accused Taylor of "highwayman politics."
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"The difficulty with that kind of threat, particularly coming from unionism, is that it has been used to effect in the past," Kelly said.
Meanwhile, British Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson has come under attack for allegedly attempting to manipulate rivalry between the SDLP and Sinn Fein in order to divert attention from new concessions to unionists.
Last week, a furious SDLP deputy Leader, Seamus Mallon, accused Mandelson of unprecedented "political chicanery" in his dealings over the police legislation. This week Mallon accused Mandelson of giving only part of the truth in a letter about the bill he sent to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal.
Mallon wrote an angry letter to members of the U.S. Congress after receiving a copy of Mandelson’s letter to the same members, which, he said, "selectively quoted SDLP views" on the Police Bill.
The effect of Mandelson’s letter was to give the impression that the SDLP was satisfied with the changes made to the original bill, which is far from the case, Mallon said.
In sometimes bitter exchanges between the two men in recent weeks, Mallon has accused Mandelson of being "snide and patronizing" and has also raised doubts about his counsel and judgment.
Sinn Fein has been no less critical of Mandelson, accusing him of ignoring the "united and vocal opposition to the Police Bill in Belfast, Dublin, Westminster and Washington."
In the midst of the Police Bill controversy, it was announced Monday that an early retirement plan to fund the scaling down of the RUC in accordance with the Patten Report’s proposals will cost £200 million over the next five years.
Describing it as the most generous package of its type ever offered to the UK public sector, Mandelson said the plan recognized the "courage and resilience of the force over the last 30 years."
The pension plan "fully meets" the British government’s commitment to "sympathetic and generous treatment" of RUC men, he said. Officers wishing to avail of the program can expect to receive up to three times their annual salary in a lump sum payment as well as an enhanced pension. However, the settlement has angered Sinn Fein. Spokesman Mitchel McLaughlin said the severance program was "offensive" to republicans and nationalists.