By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The SDLP, Sinn Fein and civil rights groups in Northern Ireland have all rejected the British government’s latest parliamentary proposals on a reformed police service.
The SDLP has prepared a 44-item, 15-page document setting down its reasons for rejecting the British "Police Bill" now before the House of Commons in London. Sinn Fein has also rejected it.
The Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Police Authority of Northern Ireland and the incoming police ombudsman, Nuala O’Loan, also said they were dismayed at the bill.
All parties to the dispute only partially blame the influence of the Ulster Unionist party, saying the real culprits are the same Stormont officials whose hands have been on the policing tiller for the last 30 years, in alliance with senior officers in the RUC itself.
The Police Authority, once described as a performing poodle rather than a genuine public watchdog, has "reluctantly" criticized the bill, saying the new police board would have even fewer powers than it had.
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The authority said the secretary of state was trying to curb the powers of the new board before it had even got off the ground, a situation it found "ludicrous and totally unacceptable."
The SDLP and the Committee on the Administration of Justice will be putting forward detailed parliamentary amendments on issues on which they are most concerned, and expect cross-party support at Westminster, along with political pressure from the U.S.
Leaving aside the vexed questions of the name, insignia and badge of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland, incorporating the RUC name or otherwise, there are other, far more crucial parts of the bill to examine.
€ The Patten Commission report said there should be full "accountability" and "transparency" and recommended that the new Policing Board should have extensive powers to call for inquiries and require reports from the chief constable.
The bill significantly constrains those powers. It puts in place a weighted majority on the board before it can demand a report from the chief constable.
Even if sufficient numbers on the board want an inquiry, the secretary of state can overrule them.
€ The secretary of state can also "regulate" many of the new policing board’s other activities.
€ The bill restricts membership of the District Partnership Policing Boards to people without criminal records. Alex Attwood of the SDLP says this is "bizarre" as there are no restrictions on those with records attaining the position of minister.
€ Patten proposed that senior appointments to the police board should be made by the secretary of state with the "agreement" of the first and deputy first ministers. This has been downgraded to "consultation."
€ Ordinary board members, said Patten, would be appointed in "consultation" with the two senior Stormont ministers. That stipulation has been removed.
€ Patten said the new office of police ombudsman should have powers to investigate not only complaints against individual police officers but patterns and more general concerns. The proposed bill fails to provide the new office of ombudsman with those powers.
€ The bill would also puts time restrictions, to be determined by the secretary of state, on the ombudsman reopening past complaints, although Patten stipulated "bad apples" should be dealt with. He will not have a statutory right to access police reports other and documents.
€ Patten placed a strong emphasis on the rights of the individual within the new force, although the emphasis in the bill is far less focused. It provides only that new officers should take an oath on human rights, whereas Patten said all serving officers — past, present and future — should do so.
€ The recruitment policy proposed by Patten — 50:50 Catholic:Protestant for 10 years to ensure representation of both communities — has been reduced to three years, with an optional extension.
€ Patten recommended targeting recruiting toward Northern Catholics who are working in, for example, the British police forces, the Garda and U.S. police departments. The bill is silent on this provision.
€ Although a report on alternatives to plastic bullets is planned, it is not provided for in the bill. Reform of Special Branch is contingent on "the terrorist threat" and would not begin until the summer of 2001, at the earliest.
"These are important parts of Patten and they are either diluted or negated in the bill. The whole project stands the risk of falling unless amendments are agreed," said Martin O’Brien of the CAJ.
The SDLP’s Attwood, who held a series of meetings with the RUC chief constable and the security minister said the bill falls far short of what was required.
"Extravagant and excessive powers are given to the secretary of state to influence policing policy and practice in a manner warned against by Patten," he said. "It would me more productive if the secretary of state heard and heeded the voices of criticism including several statutory bodies. The prime minister needs to understand that Patten offered an enormous prize — a new beginning for policing, with the support of all."