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Stop, Police!

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Anne Cadwallader and Jack Holland

BELFAST — In a last-ditch legislative attempt to bring the controversial Police Bill more into line with the Patten Report, the SDLP has offered a series of amendments to the bill as it passed through the House of Commons on Tuesday on its final stage before becoming law.

The amendments, which relate mainly to the proposed powers of the new policing boards, are expected to be rejected. But the party is hopeful that during the period when the bill is actually being implemented, further changes in the make-up, training and structures of the new police force can be secured.

Among the changes the British might offer as "reassurances" to nationalists are the consolidation of the Special Branch with the Criminal Investigation Department and the disbandment of the full-time reserve. Nationalists are also seeking the closing of the Gough Barracks Interrogation Center in Armagh, claiming that it is a hangover from the days of the Troubles.

Meanwhile, pressure is expected to come on the SDLP from the British government, once the in-fighting over the bill has ended, to agree to nominate its members to the Police Board. If all goes according to plan, a shadow police board is expected to be formed in early January, with advertisements for recruits to the new service being placed in March or April. Those selected are expected to begin training in the fall.

The SDLP has not said whether it will appoint party members to the police boards, the deadline for which is Dec. 4.

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The British Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Mandelson, said it would be "ludicrous" if the SDLP refused to nominate. "The legislation which is coming now to the end of its legislative course in parliament implements a very radical vision for policing in Northern Ireland," he said.

If the SDLP does not encourage young nationalists to join the new force, or refuses to sit on the Police Board, the new police force would be likely to remain overwhelmingly Protestant. Currently less than 8 percent of the RUC are Catholics.

The SDLP deputy leader, Seamus Mallon, said at his party’s annual conference last weekend that it is still not too late for the British government to ensure a new beginning to policing.

Mallon said the prime responsibility for delivering a "new policing dispensation" rested with the British government.

"Patten saw this. That is why only three of his recommendations were particularly addressed to nationalists," Mallon said. "The other 172 were addressed to the government.

"We need to see those recommendations implemented. Let me be clear: we are ready and willing to do this — if it is workable — but the British government must demonstrate this not merely in the bill but also in the implementation plan and in the wider attitudes of government. Even at this late hour, it is not too much to require that this be done."

Mallon told delegates that as the Police Bill reached its conclusion in Westminster, the SDLP would make up its mind on whether the legislation would deliver the "new beginning to policing promised by the Patten Report."

John Fee, a member of the SDLP representing South Armagh, said he would not go knocking on doors trying to persuade nationalists to support and join a new police force unless he was certain of a new beginning.

"We will be the only party prepared to go hawking this new force from door to door, but we won’t do it unless we are absolutely sure," he said. "I will walk the streets of South Armagh and support a new police force but if, and only if, I believe it will work for my community".

At the weekend party conference, Brid Rodgers of Upper Bann, the SDLP minister for Agriculture, said in a strongly worded speech that "the bill as constituted does not, I repeat, does not hold out any prospect of the much hoped for a much needed new beginning.

"How can those of us who have lived through the murders of people like Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane be expected to accept a policing bill which hands back the power to block an independent inquiry to the very people who have so far refused to establish one?"

Unionist calls, meanwhile, for a moratorium on the bill, in London’s House of Lords, failed. Ulster Unionist Party peers had raised a motion calling for a freeze to changes in the structure of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, until "peace is assured."

The queen is expected sign it into law within two weeks.

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