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Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson
"It's not a matter of an ultimatum"
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Monday, 8 January, 2001, 12:49 GMT
Mandelson denies RUC ultimatum
RUC officers on parade
The proposed RUC reforms have sparked much debate
The Northern Ireland secretary has refuted claims that he has given nationalists a deadline over their participation in a body which will oversee a reformed police service.

Peter Mandelson said it would be terrible if the current dispute sent a "torpedo" through the peace process.

He was speaking on Monday following reports that sweeping changes of policing had to be shelved because of nationalist opposition to new legislation.

The Police (NI) Act is based on recommendations made by an independent commission headed by the former Hong Kong governor, Chris Patten.

However, nationalists and republicans do not support the act, which became law in November, because they feel it does not not fully reflect the Patten Report.

The nationalist SDLP has refused to nominate representatives to sit on the 19-strong Policing Board, until they get guarantees from the government on certain aspects of the implementation of the reforms.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, Mr Mandelson said he was not trying to "bounce" anyone but he had a job to "advise parties when what they are doing risks the whole process".

"It's what I did over a year ago in relation to the Ulster Unionists on decommissioning," he said.

"I hope that nationalists and republicans won't make the same mistake over policing.

"As Chris Patten said, with the new Police Act on the Statute Book, his vision of policing is within reach. Nothing matters more to me than that, making a reality of the new beginning in policing that I passionately believe is needed and the government wants to bring about."

He said the launch of the new police service was just weeks away.

"The only thing that could delay the implementation of those changes in the Patten Report, is if nationalists adopt the stance they criticised unionists for all that time ago.

"That is saying they will not take part until every last demand has been met.

"It would be more than a crying shame, it would be a calamity if that central part of the Good Friday Agreement on which so many people have worked for so long were to be held up because we were unable to cross every T and dot every I, to everyone's satisfaction."

Mr Mandelson said he understood what a difficult issue policing was for the SDLP, but said they should "travel on a basis of trust that we are getting it right, that it will be got right."

What had been achieved on policing was "a small miracle" he said.

"I think it would be terrible if at this stage for the sake of some relatively small issues on which we have yet to get clarity - but will do so - or for the sake of politics and a shadow of an upcoming election, we were to let this enormous prize slip from our grasp now."

Alex Attwood, SDLP policing spokesman
Alex Attwood: Substantive issues to be resolved

However, Alex Attwood of the Social Democratic and Labour Party said while there had been a lot of progress on the issue, there needed to be more before the party could join the new board.

Mr Attwood, the party's policing spokesman said: "If the SDLP goes onto the Policing Board and the nationalist/republican community does not go into the policing service, then we would have a worse outcome than many others.

"So the real issue is let's get the outstanding issues right now so that people have what they want which is proper policing."

He added: "It is not as has been suggested relatively small issues, there remain substantive issues that will convince or not convince the nationalist and republican community that the new beginning is to be realised."

The government believes that if it persuades the SDLP, which is the largest nationalist party in the province, to support the Police Act, it will overcome the current impasse.

Replacing the Royal Ulster Constabulary with a new police service - with 50/50 recruitment of Protestants and Catholics - is one of the key elements of the Good Friday Agreement.

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See also:

06 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
Shelving of RUC reforms denied
06 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
RUC plans 'could be shelved'
14 Dec 00 | Northern Ireland
Federation's anger over police plan
13 Dec 00 | Northern Ireland
Draft plan for policing change
28 Nov 00 | Northern Ireland
Patten 'supports' NI Police Act
06 Jan 01 | Northern Ireland
NI peace process in 'grave crisis'
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