Policing row 'may bring Ulster's institutions down', says Mallon

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Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon, claimed today that the impasse over reforms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary was outting the entire peace process.

Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon, claimed today that the impasse over reforms to the Royal Ulster Constabulary was outting the entire peace process.

He attacked the Government for refusing to implement in full the recommendations put forward by a commission headed by Chris Patten, the European Commissioner and former Conservative minister.

Mr Mallon, who is in the United States with David Trimble, the First Minister, told an influential US think-tank in New York that Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson's attitude to policing posed a huge threat to the new institutions.

He said: "The British Government cannot continue to minimise Patten. But if it does, the whole police reform project will founder. Worse, the whole [Good Friday] Agreement would be put in jeopardy.

"Without broad consent for our policing arrangements, the whole political process risks being undermined," the SDLP deputy leader told the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.

"Maybe not overnight, maybe not immediately, but slowly I fear that our new politics will suffocate because the creative oxygen will have gone. Does the Secretary of State want to see that?"

Mr Mallon presented a united front with First Minister and Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble when the pair went to the White House to invite President Bill Clinton back to Belfast.

But the policing issue has opened up a deep gulf between unionists and nationalists.

Mr Trimble has warned nationalists that adopting an absolutist stance is "playing with dynamite" and feels the force's effectiveness cannot be sacrificed to political expediency.

But Mr Mallon has urged US politicians to use all the influence they can to get Patten's recommendations implemented in full.

The US Congress international relations committee has passed a resolution to this effect and President Clinton is thought to be closer to nationalist than unionist thinking on the issue.

But the Government faces a difficult balancing act to prevent the alienation of the Protestant community and it remains to be seen how big a part any US pressure could play.

"Since the foundation of the North of Ireland, no issue has proved more difficult and more divisive than policing," Mr Mallon said today.

"It has touched every raw nerve in a divided society which has lived on a knife edge for 90 years. The case for change is irrefutable."

Nationalists believe the Police Bill, due before the Lords early next month, has watered down and neutered many of the key proposals put forward by the Patten Commission.

"All too often it minimised and even obstructed the letter and spirit of Patten's reasonable recommendations. Serious faults remain. Faults that strike at the heart of Patten's proposals. Faults that the British Government must put right."

Mr Mallon said young Catholics would simply not join the new service if the issue was not resolved, meaning it would not have the cross-community support it needs to work effectively.

Part of the reason for reform is that well over 90% of officers currently serving in the Royal Ulster Constabulary are Protestant.

"It is not the SDLP that needs to be convinced in this debate. It is not Sinn Fein. It is not the Catholic church," said the SDLP man.

"It is those young nationalists... It is they who will take the historic step and join up."

Mr Mallon argued a neutral name and symbols were vital, and highlighted other key areas of concern including the powers of the new Policing Board, Ombudsman and Oversight Commissioner, which he said had been wrongly curtailed by the current Police Bill.

"The Policing Board must have the power to conduct inquiries whenever it sees fit to. That means removing the special hurdles in the Bill to initiate inquiries," he explained.

"As things stand, the Oversight Commissioner cannot comment on what the Government has failed to implement. He cannot be the effective validator of the reform process that Patten proposed. This must change."

However, Mr Mallon said it was not too late for the Government to rescue the situation.

"If the Government has the boldness to do that, that would help ensure stability and real security in Northern Ireland.

"We will at last have ended the historic distrust between nationalists and the police. And future generations will be thankful for the wisdom of today's leaders.

"Let us recognise the right of the new Northern Ireland to write its own history, to make its own society, to put its past firmly behind it. That is what the whole Agreement is about. Nothing more, nothing less."