By Jack Holland
Dr. John Reid, Britain’s new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, has said that his government would "review" the policing legislation, as well as its implementation, "if nationalist concerns are borne out in practice."
"We will review them," he said on a visit to New York this week. "We will address them if concerns arise. We will be prepared to look at it. It’s common sense to do it."
However, the minister was careful to stress the conditional "if" in his remarks. There has been controversy in recent weeks over whether the British government has given assurances to the SDLP that its concerns over the policing bill would be taken into account, following the next British general election, which most informed sources believe will be held in early May.
Reid said that it was important to go ahead with police reforms even though neither the SDLP nor Sinn Fein are happy with aspects of the new police service.
"A new police force is good for the whole of Northern Ireland," he said.
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Reid, who is a historian, claimed that the reforms to the Northern Ireland police force were "the most radical of any reforms in British history" in relation to policing.
He recognized there were other outstanding problems, such as demilitarization and paramilitary arms decommissioning, but emphasized that "we have come a huge way" toward established peace in the North.
He said that both governments have to see "substantive" moves from the IRA on decommissioning. There is concern, he said, about the Real IRA, a dissident group that killed 29 people in Omagh in 1998 and recently exploded a bomb outside the headquarters of the BBC in London.
"RIRA are not as big or potentially effective as PIRA," he said. But anyone who can place a bomb in London is a threat." He pointed to three recent RIRA attacks, two of them in Northern Ireland, which he said "could have caused serious damage and loss of life" had they succeeded.
Reid, who took over from Peter Mandelson in January, welcomed the continued commitment from the U.S. administration to helping the peace process in the North "if there are particular areas where U.S. support is required."
The new Northern Ireland secretary said that "it’s open to this generation of leaders in Northern Ireland to make history." He said that he felt privileged that he could "in a small way be a vehicle to help them do it."