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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 17:47 GMT
Ex-prisoners 'may get policing role'
The law could be changed to allow former paramilitary prisoners to sit on Northern Ireland's District Policing Partnerships, the government has said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Paul Murphy made the announcement on Monday afternoon as the government published the draft bill setting out proposed further changes in the province's policing legislation.
But the government said the change to the policing law would be conditional on republicans and loyalists engaging in what it called "acts of completion".
The government has repeatedly called on the paramilitary groups to disarm, end their activities and disband.
The proposals for changes to the policing legislation have been published as the British and Irish Governments continue to work to try to resolve the latest political crisis over alleged IRA activity, which led to the suspension of the assembly last month.
The draft legislation has been published in two separate documents - with the clauses removing the disqualification of ex-prisoners from the local policing boards in a separate text.
Mr Murphy said: "The first set of clauses which will form the basis of the bill itself reflects, we believe, as much as it possibly can, discussions held about these issues held at Weston Park and the implementation review afterwards.
"The second text revised situations where we looked at these things separately; and of course it depends upon whether Sinn Fein and the loyalist parties agree towards acts of completion."
Further changes to policing legislation have been a key demand by Sinn Fein during talks on the deadlocked political process.
Despite changes including 50% Catholic recruitment aimed at making the historically Protestant-dominated force acceptable to the whole community, Sinn Fein has said the programme of reform has not been radical enough.
The nationalist SDLP has also been calling for further changes. But unlike Sinn Fein, which has refused to take its seats on the Policing Board, the SDLP endorsed the new Police Service of Northern Ireland following the changeover from the Royal Ulster Constabulary last November.
Changes to policing were promised by the government during the Weston Park talks last year, and most recently in the Queen's speech earlier this month.
Security Minister Jane Kennedy briefed the four main parties on the draft legislation before its publication.
Reacting to the government's proposals, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness said he believed it would be possible "to come to a resolution of all of these difficulties if the will is there" over the next four months.
But he added that Sinn Fein was still not satisfied that the proposals fully implemented the Patten proposals, on which the programme of change to policing was based.
Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble said the proposals were "highly contentious" and "very disturbing".
He said he was extremely concerned about the future of policing in Belfast if ex-prisoners were allowed to sit on the district policing partnerships, which are to hold the police to account at a local level in each council area of Northern Ireland.
This was especially so if partnerships in north and west Belfast "became a law unto themselves," he said.
The Ulster Unionists declared at their last ruling council that if the change was made they would withdraw from the Policing Board.
After meeting Ms Kennedy, SDLP leader Mark Durkan said the new draft policing legislation fell short of commitments made at the Weston Park talks last July and the subsequent revised implementation plan.
He said 12 out of 14 commitments were met and his party had a number of misgivings about other issues including the powers of the police ombudsman and the Policing Board.
"They touch fundamentally on issues of accountability and openness," he said.
'Criminals on boards'
Democratic Unionist Party leader Ian Paisley said the proposals amounted to "the greatest constitutional calamity that we have ever faced".
He added: "We were presented by the minister with two bills.
"One is the British Government bill and the other is the IRA/Sinn Fein bill and they are going to marry them together.
"So we don't have Dublin rule now. We have Gerry Adams rule."
"All the conditions to keep criminals off these boards are going to be lifted," he said.
Northern Ireland Unionist Party leader Cedric Wilson called on the DUP and UUP to immediately resign from the Policing Board and to withdraw their nominations from the District Policing Partnerships in protest over the draft legislation.
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