18 May 2000 Edition
Policing Bill totally unacceptable
This week has been dominated by fears that the British government was again going to jeopardise the peace process by entertaining unionist demands. On the last occasion, Tony Blair handed David Trimble a guarantee on the decommissioning issue which led to the British government's unilateral suspension of the Good Friday Agreement institutions.
This week, the Policing Bill has moved centre stage. The IRA's initiative on arms pocketed, the Ulster Unionists have moved on to seek a dilution of the Patten proposals on policing.
The British published their policing legislation on Monday, and Sinn Féin spokesperson on policing Bairbre de Brún has described it as totally unacceptable.
In a statement outlining Sinn Féin's position, she said:
``The Good Friday Agreement established an independent commission to bring forward proposals for a new beginning to policing.
``Given the history of the RUC and nationalist rejection of it, an independent mechanism for a new and proper policing service was needed to provide assurances that the mistakes of the past would not be repeated.
``The Patten proposals did not in themselves go far enough for republicans, particularly in terms of plastic bullets, an unarmed police service, emergency legislation and the role of human rights abusers in any new service.
`` The British government could have dealt with these matters in the interim, but have chosen instead to dilute the Patten recommendations.
``Under the Bill published on Tuesday, the British Secrtary of State will become the sole arbiter of change in a number of crucial areas. For Peter Mandelson to take on to himself the power to take these decisions runs contrary to the Good Friday Agreement.
``It is totally unacceptable that the legislation does not implement a number of the key proposals contained in Patten Report. The most glaring of these include:
The recommendations on the name, badge, flag and accountability all depart from Patten.
The Policing Board is seriously restricted in its powers.
The Ombudsman is seriously restricted in his/her powers.
The power of the District Policing Partnerships are restricted and there is no mention of four sub-groups for Belfast
The oath is only taken on appointment by new recruits.
The code of ethics is left solely in the hands of the police themselves.
There is no assurance that there will be an independent recruitment agency.
The Oversight Commissioner is not in the new legislation but an RUC foundation is.
There is no assurance that the Patten recommendations on plastic bullets, the Special Branch, community representation and new policing practices will be carried through.
The definition of policing with the community stands the aim of Patten on its head.
``The British government cannot be serious about wanting a policing service which can attract and sustain support from the nationalist and republican section of our community while they publish a Bill of this nature.
``The legislation does not fulfil the commitment given by the two government in their letter to the party leaders 12 days ago.
``Policing is a touchstone issue for nationalists and republicans. The Bill presented by the British government is totally unacceptable.''
Police Bill a fiasco - Labour MP
The newly published Police Bill for Northern Ireland has been slammed by a senior Labour MP as ``a fiasco''. Former shadow Six-County spokesperson kevin McNamara criticised the British government for allowing the issue of policing to made into a `political football' by unionists.
McNamara, a co-founder of the Friends of Ireland group, made his comments following the publication of the Bill in the House of Commons on Tuesday, 16 May.
He said: ``I am angered that the government has allowed the issue of policing to be hijacked in this manner. I cannot understand the failure by government to grasp this unique opportunity provided by Patten.
``The name of the police service is not about wheeling and dealing in Northern Ireland politics, but a measure of commitment to a new beginning. Attacks on the principle or spirit of Patten serve to undermine the whole process.''
Setting out a vision of policing in the future, McNamara said: ``Northern Ireland needs a police service to keep the peace; a professional service to promote reconciliation and meet the needs of the next century.''
Commenting on the failure of the Police Bill to deliver the necessary inclusivity and confidence of nationalists, McNamara said: ``The proposals on policing must recognise the new deal for equality and give the poorest communities a say. It must reach out to those who in the past have the suffered the shortcomings of poor policing. These people are understandably the most hostile to the RUC and its traditions. The Police Bill fails to set out new objectives for policing; it provides no transition to the police service of the future.''
``It is essential - now more than ever, that an Oversight Commissioner, as proposed by Chris Patten, be appointed as a matter of urgency. I will be demanding this in the debate on the Bill's Second Reading.''
No dilution of Patten, urge US Congress members
Sinn Féin National Chairperson, Mitchel McLaughlin, met with members of Congress in Washington on Thursday, 11 May, to appraise them of the initiative taken by the IRA and of the British and Irish governments' statements surrounding the reinstatement of the power sharing executive.
McLaughlin detailed the huge effort Sinn Féin had put into the recent weeks of negotiations to break yet another impasse in the Peace Process.
He told the Members that the attempt by the UUP and David Trimble to again negotiate aspects of the Agreement, in particular with regard to the Patten recommendations, could undo the achievement at the weekend. The UUP is demanding the retention of the RUC name and badge and the flying of the Union Jack on all government buildings.
McLaughlin said, ``The Patten Report was minimal with regard to a new policing service. Sinn Féin's single recommendation was the disbandment of the RUC. If the British government, after signing off on a negotiated pact to restore the Executive and move speedily to implement the overall Agreement is now reneging from such a fundamental issue, it puts it all in jeopardy.''
The response from the Members was strong and they expressed their utter support for the upholding of the Agreement, urging that all parties and the two governments move forward to consolidate the in initiative.
In a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Congressman Chris Smith, and House International Relations Committee Chairman Benjamin Gilman, warned of the dangers of diluting the recommendations.
The letter reads: ``We write... to express our grave concern about recent news reports that suggest that the implementation of the Patten Commission report on policing in Northern Ireland... may be delayed or tabled and used as a bargaining chip with Unionists who oppose reforms.
``We have spent an extensive amount of time examining the report and the policing problems in Northern Ireland and believe it is imperative that, at a minimum, these modest reforms must be made in full.''
Not just a name
BY ROBBIE MacGABHANN
Nobody who takes a real and positive interest in Irish politics underestimates the challenges and uncertainties the peace process throws up for Ulster Unionism. However, the last week has seen the concerns of unionists become translated into attempted coercion of nationalists and republicans. Nationalist Ireland is once again being coerced by the unionists, who are using general support throughout Ireland for the re-establishment of the Good Friday institutions as a bargaining chip for more concessions.
Unionists have often confused democratic politics with simple majoritarianism, but their demands on Patten go a step further than this
This throws up the question as to what to actually do about the Ulster Unionist backtracking and dissembling. This is made all the more important in the light of the decision by Peter Mandelson to also backtrack and prevaricate on the Joint Statement reached two weeks ago at Hillsborough.
This week, Mandelson, both in a letter to David Trimble and speaking in Westminster, outlined his position of deferring a decision on the issue of a name for a reformed police force.
Mandelson's actions have amplified the problems in the peace process this week. Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams has highlighted the concern felt in the nationalist community about the role being played by the British government. Adams said that he believed that the unionist prevarication and
backtracking ``has been encouraged... by the attitude of the British government''.
So what should the response be to the Ulster Unionist demands? One point of view is the attitude of `what's in a name?'. The logic of this argument is that here we are so close to a possible return to the Executive and the re-establishment of the other all-Ireland institutions that the vast majority of Irish people clearly want so why not concede on these small petty issues? After all, we have to be mindful of unionist sensitivities of nationalist or republican domination and a refusal to recognise how important these symbols are, etc. We have all heard these arguments again and again, usually in the safe confines of the Sunday Times or the studios of RTE.
It is one course of action but it would be a wrong one. There are at least three reasons why there should be a firm no to unionist demands on Patten and the flags issue.
The first is the very simple fact of the republican experience over the last six years. We have endured what has been at times an endless trawl through a vast range of preconditions erected by the unionists and the British government to sap the dynamic of the peace process, to stall it and at times
even to try and kill it.
It is remarkable that at one stage in the contacts between the republicans and the British government in 1993, there was to be a weeklong cessation with round table talks between the two parties. The republicans assented and the line from London went strangely dead.
Then we had the `was the cessation permanent' debacle, the decontamination period, the waiting to meet Mayhew period, the stalling on all-party talks, the bogus elections and assembly. Then it was decommissioning; then it was the how and the when of decommissioning. Two weeks ago, the IRA once again took the initiative and made substantial moves to break the log jam stalling the peace process.
The new road blocks erected by Trimble and the UUP are just that, road blocks and preconditions, nothing else. In the aftermath of the IRA's Easter statement, David Trimble said: ``The IRA has vindicated the Secretary of State's decision and, through its own stubborn refusal to commit itself to peace by word and deed, has put off the day when Northern Ireland politicians administer Northern Ireland affairs.''
Now, with a new initiative from the IRA, it is once again the Ulster Unionists who are found wanting. It has been shown yet again that it is clearly they who are putting off the day when Irish politicians administer Irish affairs.
The second issue arising from Unionist stalling is why these symbols are so important to unionists. Isn't it interesting that they are not actually saying that the RUC shouldn't be reformed, even though that is clearly the core of their thinking. They want to hold onto the name and the union flag because it implies ownership. It implies control. It has never been made clear by anyone in the unionist leadership why they so need this comfort blanket.
The sky didn't fall in when the Dublin government cavalcade of Mercedes cars nosed across the border. It didn't fall in when the Executive sat. So why would it fall if the people of the Six Counties woke up and found themselves without the RUC and with the NIPS? There clearly isn't a principle at stake. The sad reality is that it is just another precondition.
One possible place to discuss the name of the RUC and what flag to hoist is in the Assembly. Here then, is the nub of the issue. How many republicans wake up and thank God there is a Six-County Assembly? They don't, and for many there were serious misgivings about the formation of such a body and Sinn Féin's participation in it, especially when it was so clearly at variance with republican aspirations.
Isn't it strange that unionists don't want to let the very body that they lobbied so hard to be set up debate and decide on this important issue.
Maybe it is because when it comes down to the wire, unionists cannot handle real legislative debate. They have often confused democratic politics with simple majoritarianism, but their demands on Patten go a step further than this.
Last February, David Trimble pronounced that ``society as a whole in Northern Ireland has a right to judge the quality of the IRA's commitment to decommissioning''. This week, Irish society is judging Ulster Unionism on the same basis that it has judged others. So far, the verdict is not looking good.