Writing in The Independent today, Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, gives his clearest signal that he will implement the proposals published in September by Chris Patten, the former minister who is now a European commissioner.
The Patten commission's report was welcomed by nationalist politicians anxious to see more Catholics join the Protestant-dominated force to underpin the peace deal. Many Unionists will now be enraged by Mr Mandelson's plan to introduce all the key measures in the report, which proposed changing the RUC's name to the Northern Ireland Police Service and scrapping its badge of a crown and harp.
"I intend to implement Patten's proposals but I hope in a way that carries the support and goodwill of both communities," Mr Mandelson says in today's article. He acknowledges that policing in the province is "a subject which shows the feelings on all sides aroused by the events of the past 30 years" and stresses that he is "fully aware of those sensitivities."
Mr Mandelson says he wanted to scale down the security forces' presence as quickly as possible after the breakthrough in the peace process but to do so without "leaving people vulnerable to attack from dissidents, on both sides, who oppose progress".
His comments about the RUC shake-up will alarm many Unionists. They regard Mr Mandelson as more sensitive to their concerns than his predecessor, Mo Mowlam, and had hoped he would "cherry-pick" the Patten report.
David Trimble, leader of the Ulster Unionists, attacked the proposals as a "gratuitous insult" to the memory of more than 300 RUC officers murdered during the Troubles. The Government's decision on Patten may put Mr Trimble under renewed pressure in his own party, which will review its support for Ulster's new devolved government in February.
It is understood that Mr Mandelson will seek to allay Unionist fears over policing by announcing next month that the proposals will be introduced slowly and with sensitivity. A government source said last night: "We are not going soft on the report. It will be implemented but in an extremely careful and sensitive way. It will not be done overnight. It will happen over period of time and with caution." The source said the Government's statement on Patten would take full account of the fragility of Ulster's new assembly and executive; the fact that terrorists had not yet decommissioned their weapons and the need to ensure stability on both political and security matters.
Mr Mandelson will also seek to reassure Unionists by keeping pressure on the IRA to decommission. In today's article he says: "The Good Friday Agreement is working. But the transition to a new era must be complete. The Good Friday Agreement needs to be implemented in full. No longer must anyone live under the threat of violence. Those days, too, must be seen to be gone. That is why decommissioning needs to happen ... It is a voluntary act, but one that is an essential part of the agreement, as all the parties have now accepted."
The momentum of the peace process will be maintained today at two meetings in London. The British-Irish Council, including ministers from London, Dublin, the Channel Islands, Isle of Man and the assemblies in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff, will hold its first session. It will discuss co- operation on issues such as drugs, the environment and social exclusion. Then Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, Mr Trimble, Northern Ireland's First Minister and Seamus Mallon, his deputy, will attend the first meeting of the British-Irish Inter-governmental Conference, which will foster greater co-operation.
Key prisoner freed, page 4Reuse content