Blair says RUC will not be disbanded

Selling the peace deal: no threat to disband Ulster's police force, but anger at terrorist releases
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The Independent Online
THE Royal Ulster Constabulary will not be disbanded, Tony Blair insisted yesterday on a visit to Belfast where he met all the major parties.

As the Government prepares to announce the line-up of a commission, headed by Chris Patten, to investigate the future of policing in Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister said: "If we can change the context in Northern Ireland in which policing takes place to one of peace and stability and progress, then hopefully we can get policing done in a normal way which is what all the members of the RUC want, quite apart from the public."

Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, also made efforts to assure an audience of RUC officers that their personal, political and career interests would not be adversely affected by the provisions of the Good Friday agreement.

The Prime Minister's trip, his fourth to Belfast in five weeks, was like the others primarily concerned with maximising the pro-agreement vote. The issue of decommissioning was high on the agenda for his talks with both Unionist critics and supporters of the accord.

Mr Blair said parties would be judged on their commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means, adding: "There are a whole series of things including decommissioning which have to be taken into account."

Unsurprisingly, the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists emerged from their meeting exuding distrust and suspicion, saying of the Prime MJinister that they intended to "nail his hide to the wall" on the decommissioning issue.

A Paisley ally, Robert McCartney MP, was even ore scathing: "I read those pledges with a lawyer's eye," he said, "and there were more holes in those pledges and more escape routes than there are holes in a colander. This will go down in history along with the South Sea Bubble as one of the greatest con tricks of all time".

The Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, however, said he was satisfied Mr Blair was sticking to pledges he had made. He added: "His credibility, and not a little of our own, depends on him sticking clearly to the undertakings he gave, and I am quite sure that is his intention."

Gerry Adams, by contrast, drew very different conclusions from his meeting with Mr Blair. The Sinn Fein president said: "He made clear, as any reading of the Good Friday agreement makes clear, that there aren't any preconditions and there can't be any preconditions. I don't think anyone can try to rewrite that agreement, and I don't think it is Mr Blair's intention to rewrite the agreement."

Meanwhile Les Rodgers, chairman of the Police Federation, the police officers' union, warned the government against proceeding too far or too fast in its plans to reform the RUC. He told the Federation's conference: "There will be no two-tier policing, there will be no paramilitaries in our ranks and above all there will be no disbandment of this proud force."

One officer, Constable Gordon Taylor, staged a protest by holding up a newspaper listing RUC victims, calling for no prisoner releases, and walking out before Ms Mowlam addressed the conference.