N Ireland may change oath to Crown

THE oath of allegiance to the Crown, which must be taken by police officers, judges and senior lawyers in Northern Ireland, may be changed to make it more acceptable to nationalists.

The oath has emerged as one of the unresolved difficulties between the British and Irish governments in the preparation of a joint framework document for the peace process.

The Irish Government wants the symbols of the Northern Ireland state to be acceptable to nationalists as well as to the Unionists.

The British have agreed to change the oath taken by jurers but have so far not agreed to go further, because of fears over the constitutional implications. For example, those who rejected the new wording might query the authority of the courts. Whitehall is aware of the sensitivity of the issue to the Unionist population which might see any change as a dilution of their status within the United Kingdom.

An oath, which includes a reference to ``our lady the Queen'' is taken by new Royal Ulster Constabulary officers who promise to serve without ``malice or ill-will''. Similar oaths are required to be said in different professions. . Despite the difficulties there is said to be some common ground between the two governments. Offering the choice of oaths is among the options as well as the possibility of swearing alliegance to Northern Ireland's constitution.

John Hume, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, said: ``These matters have to be dealt with sensibly once it is clear that peace is real. I don't see the point in having public debates on them in advance of that.''

Meanwhile there are signs that the British Government will remove at least some of the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act if the ceasefire holds into the New Year.

The surrender of explosives and arms remain problematic, but the governments recognise that not all arms will ultimately be surrendered. The security services will have to assess whether the armaments surrendered or decommissioned suggest a genuine commitment to renounce violence.

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