'RUC reforms will not be peace talks football' vows Mandelson

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Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson vowed today not to allow policing reforms in the province to be used as political football in the negotiations to restart a power sharing executive.

Mr Mandelson expressed disappointment at the vote by Ulster Unionists yesterday linking a return to the executive with the retention of the name and symbols of the Royal Ulster Constabulary.

He said: "I don't think anyone wants to see the RUC's name and symbols turned into a sort of political challenge by any single party.

"In my view, as (the RUC Chief Constable) Ronnie Flanagan has said, it does the RUC an immense disservice.

"You must remember the RUC's priority is as a public service who has been in the front war against terrorism these past 30 years.

"They want, as peace forms and the security situation allows, to become a community-based police service rather than a security force."

Mr Mandelson told BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme that the peace process in Northern Ireland was being undermined by extremists on both sides of the political divide.

The Rev Martin Smyth's strong showing in the leadership challenge in the Ulster Unionist Party ballot yesterday against Mr Trimble meant the prospect of a political breakthrough was not going to be easy to achieve, Mr Mandelson conceded.

However, the Northern Ireland Secretary said he was intending, along with the Irish government, to intensify efforts to a find a way out of the political impasse and to implement all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.

"What we have got to do in the following weeks is to find a way in which people address everyone's concerns.

"There are many legitimate concerns and they have all got to be addressed.

"What we have got to do is find a way of implementing the Good Friday Agreement as a whole to give people the confidence and the comfort they need in order to move forward and allow politics to work and the executive and institutions reactivated."

Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin insisted today his party could still work with the Ulster Unionists, but said the best way of supporting Mr Trimble was by restoring the suspended devolved institutions.

The Foyle Assemblyman claimed the right wing of Mr Trimble's party had "consolidated their position" but there was still a substantial working majority in favour of change who should be encouraged.

Mr McLaughlin told GMTV's Sunday Programme with Alastair Stewart: "Quite clearly what we can do together is ensure that the political institutions are brought back by the British Government and that we then demonstrate, as we did over that eight or nine week period, that politics can work.

"I think that's the only way, in fact, to hold back the wreckers on any side."

The Sinn Fein MLA insisted his party was "not going to walk away" from the peace process regardless of who was the leader of the Ulster Unionists.

However, he didn't believed there was any prospect in the immediate future that the IRA would either declare the war is over or hand over any weapons.

"But even if it was the case I don't think it would solve the problems of those within Unionism who want to stop this entire process."