The SDLP’s Seamus Mallon, deputy first minister of the Northern Ireland executive, has had harsh words from First Minister David Trimble and the British Northern secretary, Peter Mandelson.
By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland
BELFAST — The British government’s handling of the Police Bill is at the center of a continuing controversy this week with both the SDLP and Sinn Fein claiming that, as it stood, it could not provide the new beginning for policing in Northern Ireland promised by the Patten Report, which the bill is supposed to implement.
The North’s two main nationalist parties are alarmed at what they view as a British attempt to dilute many of the reforms proposed by Patten, especially in relation to the naming of the new force.
Other areas of concern include the powers of the Police Board, which nationalists claim would not have the primary functions of holding the chief constable of the new force to account or changing police policy; the restricted powers being granted to the police ombudsman; the new oath of allegiance, which Patten said should include a commitment to upholding human rights, and the structure, membership and powers of local policing boards.
In one bitter exchange, Seamus Mallon, the deputy first minister of the executive and deputy leader of the SDLP, angrily accused the British Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, of not informing him of a last-minute decision to drop a vital SDLP amendment that had been agreed on in an attempt to resolve the dispute over the new force’s name. Unionists are fighting a rear-guard action to have "RUC" incorporated in the new title, "Police Service of Northern Ireland." Mallon said this risked alienating Catholics.
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The Irish government has also made its concerns known to the British. The bill will be at the top of the agenda when Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs Brian Cowen meets with Mandelson on July 28. Though British and Northern Ireland Office officials are insisting they have no more room left for maneuver on the bill, the Irish government remains convinced there are still opportunities for changes to accommodate nationalist concerns, according to a reliable source.
The taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said he had expressed these concerns during a phone call with the British prime minister, Tony Blair, this week. Ahern said people wanted to recommend that young nationalists join the new police force.
He said we had not reached that position yet and he had made that clear to Blair.
"Mr. Blair understands, as I do, that the Patten proposals can only be successful if we get the participation of all communities in the police service of Northern Ireland," Ahern said. "Otherwise, all Patten’s work, with its international element, and all of the debate and analysis, will not have been successful. But I think we will achieve that."
Sinn Fein has warned that the proposals currently before the House of Lords in London are "doomed to failure." The party accuses the British government "subverting" many of the 175 reforms contained in the original report.
The SDLP’s position is more nuanced, believing that it is still possible to fashion something that will meet nationalist requirements.
Sinn Fein produced a document this week claiming 89 of Patten’s recommendations were being "subverted" by the British government and that there was insufficient information to make an assessment about the way 75 of the recommendations were being implemented.
The Patten commission was set up under the terms of the Good Friday agreement to transform the RUC into a service acceptable to both Catholic and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein MP and Education Minister Martin McGuinness said the bill as it stands has no chance of attracting young nationalists into the police service.
As the row over policing deepened, Mallon also accused the North’s first minister, and leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, David Trimble, of "outrageous behavior" and of "allowing himself to be used to peddle propaganda" after Trimble was quoted in a newspaper as saying Mallon had threatened to resign his ministerial post over the policing bill.
Though the two men have not had a cordial relationship, it was thought to be improving before the latest row.
"There is absolutely no truth to that at all," Mallon said. "And I find it remarkable that David Trimble should make that statement and allow himself to become the peddler of propaganda for those who obviously are trying to spin their way out of a very difficult situation in relation to the Police Bill." Mallon termed the accusation "outrageous" and "malicious."
Other sources claim that it was Trimble who threatened to resign if the Britain did not delete the SDLP clause clarifying that the force’s new name would not incorporate "RUC."
Said Sinn Fein’s McGuinness: "The problem now is that the British government disingenuously seeks to locate compromise as being somewhere between their proposals and the Patten recommendations. Many nationalists have made clear that, for them, Patten was itself the compromise."
Unionists see the matter differently. David Burnside, a senior UUP hardliner and by-election candidate, said there is widespread support in the unionist community for retaining the name of the RUC.
"I think the RUC and the royal pre-fix must be retained," he said. "There were two clauses offered to the Ulster Unionists. Clause One referred to the incorporation of the RUC, which I find acceptable. The second reference was to the operational aspect of the RUC being the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which I find unacceptable."
MPs gave the Police Bill a third reading in the House of Commons on July 11, backing the legislation by 307 votes to 16. The SDLP abstained in the vote. Unionist and Conservative peers are expected to raise further amendments to the legislation when it goes before the House of Lords.