By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — The British government is threatening to put all RUC reform on hold unless the SDLP endorses its proposals for a new police force in Northern Ireland, according to London sources.
The SDLP is still refusing to nominate representatives to the proposed Policing Board, or to encourage young nationalists to join the new force, while it says key elements in the Patten Report remain absent from legislation proposed at Westminster.
Sinn Fein is even more opposed to endorsing the proposed new force, boycotting the Police Board alongside the SDLP, to the fury of the British government and its representative at Stormont, Northern Secretary Peter Mandelson.
He and the British prime minister, Tony Blair, insist their proposals for implementing the Patten Report amount to a faithful acceptance of most of its 175 recommendations, but this is cutting little ice with either the SDLP or Sinn Fein.
The threat emerged in Whitehall as British ministers and officials assess the practical consequences of the standoff with nationalists and republicans on policing. There is no sign yet of the threat having its desired result — a backing down from the SDLP.
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In a key Commons answer just before Christmas, Mandelson assured the SDLP leader, John Hume, that the British government shared Patten’s "baseline" on key policing issues.
Mandelson also promised the British crown could not be retained as a symbol in the new police cap badge unless the SDLP agreed. He said he was "planning for success, not failure". But well-placed sources have said postponing the reform program is a serious possibility.
The first major casualty of any delay could be the initial phase of planned 50-50 Protestant-Catholic recruitment for the service. Delay could also hit the creation of the new Policing Board and the formal change in title, from RUC to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, due next September as the first wave of new recruits are assigned.
The Policing Board, comprising 10 members from the parties in the power-sharing Executive, and nine independents, was expected to begin its operation in shadow form early next month. However, the SDLP leadership has ignored deadlines and has so far given no commitment to nominate members to serve on the board.
Meanwhile, the Irish government has repeated that plans to reform the RUC are not yet sufficient for nationalists to be encouraged to join. An Irish government spokesman said its position was the same as that of the two nationalist parties.
"We have to get to a position where we can recommend to young nationalists and republicans that they join a new police force," the spokesman said. "The government feels that we have not reached that position yet."
The spokesman said he could not speak for the SDLP, but that the endorsement of the two nationalist parties in the North was important to the success of a reformed police force. The government agreed that the position had not been reached where the two nationalist parties in the North could give such endorsement, he said.
Irish government sources have said they see little prospect of an unambiguous nationalist endorsement of the reform process in the short term, and appear to be seeking means of proceeding with support of just the SDLP.
The SDLP’s justice spokesman, Alex Atwood, called on the British government to address the concerns of nationalists. He said he was referring to inquiries into security activities in the past, the implementation of policing change and issues arising from the Police Act.
It has also been revealed that more that 600 complaints against the RUC have been received by the new Police Ombudsman’s office. The figures were revealed by Nuala O’Loan, the first ombudsman to be appointed.
She said complaints against the RUC were being received at twice the rate initially anticipated by the new office and if the trend continues, they could expect around 6,000 complaints within a year.
"We have found that, in general, the complaints are genuine and not frivolous and every one of them will be investigated," O’Loan said. She stressed that anyone with a complaint against the RUC should contact the Ombudsman’s office as soon as possible.