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10 August 2000 Edition

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A New Police Service - This is our Goal

Sinn Féin President GERRY ADAMS argues that it is still possible to secure a policing service that attracts and embraces republicans, nationalists and unionists. He calls again on Tony Blair and the British government to end their negative `spinning', reject the advice of faceless officials and rethink the flawed Policing Bill

Why has this British government made such a mess of the policing issue?

Is it Perfidious Albion? Cock-up or conspiracy? Incompetence or double-dealing?

The answer to those questions depends very much on who is asking the question. But one question will meet with a unanimous response. That question? Is the British government's handling of the policing issue good for the peace process? The answer? No!

So how did it get like this? Let's start at the beginning. During the negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement there was acceptance of the need to create a new policing service. A Commission was established to make recommendations on how this could be achieved. The Commission, headed by former British Tory Chairman Chris Patten, was made up of a range of quite conservative individuals. Hardly radical or revolutionary cadres. Notwithstanding this, their report was a progressive and serious attempt to create a new beginning for policing.

The British government has turned the policing issue into a political battleground. It didn't need to be like that. It doesn't need to be like that
While Sinn Féin's policing policy goes much further than the Patten recommendations, we welcomed the positive elements of the Patten report but we made it clear, wisely as it turned out, that we would withhold our judgement until the British government had dealt with the recommendations.

When he received the report, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, said that he was going to implement the Patten recommendations but he seems to either have underestimated the resistance there would be within his own system to these recommendations, or else, having given that commitment, he left it with others who did not share his view. Or maybe he has changed his mind?

We have seen all this happen in the past with other British governments on other issues. The faceless men within the sub-committees which managed British rule in the north of Ireland for the last 30 years have lots of good reasons for resisting the advent of civic policing. The state apparatus which co-ordinated the counter-insurgency drive of the last few decades has wielded unprecedented power on a range of judicial, military, political, economic, social and planning matters, and will not easily give up that power. Yes, the more long-sighted insiders will know that there will have to be changes. They are prepared to go along with some of these but only if an instrument of civil control is retained. In other words, they want to maintain ownership of policing.

A genuinely open, de-politicised or politically neutral civic policing service would not permit this. So, who had the first trawl through the Patten recommendations? The faceless officials who make up the Patten Action Committee and the RUC's own Change Management Team. The very people representing the very system which will have to be turned around by modernising political leaders, particularly the British PM or his Secretary of State, if the Good Friday Agreement is to succeed.

And what did these officials do with the Patten recommendations? They did what they have been paid to do for years. The result? They gutted fundamental and substantive aspects of the report.

It was their recommendations that formed the basis of Peter Mandelson's statement on policing in January of this year to the British House of Commons, and the subsequent Mandelson Policing Bill. This Bill has been rejected by all shades of nationalism in Ireland, by the Catholic Church, by the Irish government, by a range of justice and human rights organisations, by those members of the Patten Commission who have spoken on it, and by mainstream political opinion in the USA. And of course the Mandelson Bill did not satisfy unionism, including the UUP. And herein lies another element of the British government's implementation of the Patten recommendations.

The unionists tended to concentrate very much on the symbolic and other trappings connected to the RUC, including issues that the Patten Action Team and the Change Management Team were prepared to concede. However, faced with a rí rá within unionism, the British government sought to placate the `pro-Agreement' element under the leadership of David Trimble by making concessions on the name of the RUC and other issues. So at Hillsborough during the negotiations leading to 5 May, while the British government gave private commitments to Sinn Féin, and repeated these in a joint public statement and letter with the Irish government, Peter Mandelson gave a different commitment to John Taylor about the name of the RUC.

Of course the difficulty with this bit of double-dealing is that it quickly becomes public, not least because there is intense rivalry among unionists vying to become saviours of the RUC.

So what did the British government do then? In briefings reminiscent of the bad old days, it went back to blaming Sinn Féin and there was a crude PR and lobbying exercise to drive a wedge into the wider nationalist consensus that the Mandelson Policing Bill is inadequate. This has involved letters from Peter Mandelson to US elected representatives selectively quoting the SDLP, and public statements and private briefings which accuse the SDLP of running scared of Sinn Féin.

It also involves high-level briefings by senior British officials in the USA that Sinn Féin ``are never going to sign up for a new policing service anyway. Sinn Féin are never going to be satisfied and they are dictating the pace''. That the ``Irish government understands this and are on board but that Fianna Fáil is worried about Sinn Féin's electoral challenge.'' And that ``we (the British) are confident that we will get Seamus Mallon back on side''.

Mr. Mandelson also took the unusual step last week of writing to the leader of the opposition in Dublin. His letter was in similar vein to the arguments he and his colleagues have been pursuing in Washington and in the media in Ireland.

At the heart of this spin is the lie that Sinn Féin will never sign up to a new policing service anyway. That is not the case. Sinn Féin wants a new policing service and we will not settle for something less than this. Republicans want and need the security of a decent, democratic and accountable policing service.

Indeed, Sinn Féin produced a comprehensive policy on policing long before the Good Friday Agreement. We will consider and give a fair wind to alternative policing policing proposals. The Patten Report, if fully implemented, may give us the opportunity to do that. The Mandelson Policing Bill does not.

We are continuing to work hard to ensure that there is a new policing service. We have produced more amendments, held more private and publicised meetings with the British government, and with others, on this issue, and produced more detailed assessments as Mandelson's Bill progressed through the British Parliament, than anyone else.

We have done this because one logical outcome of the peace process, if it is to be successful, must be a policing service that republicans can join and encourage others to join. Currently, we have a paramilitary police force that is 100% unionist.

What is required is a new civic policing service which is democratically accountable, working in partnership with all citizens, and upholding international standards of human rights. A policing service that reflects the goals set within the Good Friday Agreement and is supported by the whole community.

The British government has turned the policing issue into a political battleground. It didn't need to be like that. It doesn't need to be like that. It is still possible to secure a policing service that attracts and embraces republicans, nationalists and unionists. This is our goal.

It should also be the goal of the British government. It is their stated public objective. But to achieve this Mr Blair will have to face up to and turn around his own system. There is no other way.

An Phoblacht
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