BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Breaking with decades of bitter history, the major Catholic party in Northern Ireland's power-sharing government announced Monday it would appeal for young Catholics to join the predominantly Protestant police force.
The moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party announced its decision hours after leaders of the Roman Catholic Church made a similarly unprecedented appeal for Catholics to accept Britain's proposed peace pact of 1998.
"We will respond positively to an invitation to join the Policing Board and we will be encouraging people from all sections of the community to join the new Police Service," said SDLP leader John Hume, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
The long-sought Catholic move fueled hope that other issues threatening to tear apart Northern Ireland's joint Catholic-Protestant government might be resolved. But the smaller Catholic party in the coalition, Sinn Fein, said it wouldn't join the SDLP in supporting the package of police reform on offer.
Earlier, the church's Northern Irish bishops said toughened-up plans from Britain to create a more Catholic-friendly Police Service of Northern Ireland should be supported.
"We believe that the time is now right for all those who sincerely want a police service that is fair, impartial and representative to grasp the opportunity that is presented and to exercise their influence to achieve such a service," said the bishops, led by Ireland's Catholic primate, Archbishop of Armagh Sean Brady.
Referring to past Irish Republican Army attacks on Catholic recruits and their families, they said, "young Catholics must feel totally free to choose whether or not to participate in the new policing service. Failure to respect that right, in any form, would be a profound contravention of their human rights."
Until now Catholic church and political leaders had withheld full support for Northern Ireland's police, who are 88 percent Protestant. Catholics have long tended to view the police as the security arm of Northern Ireland, a British-linked state that most Catholics want to see absorbed into the predominantly Catholic rest of Ireland. The IRA sought to keep Catholic involvement with the police minimal, singling out any Catholics who joined.
Britain last week published 70 pages of revised commitments on policing, the latest gesture designed to underpin the joint Catholic-Protestant administration and to spur a start to IRA disarmament, the issue doing most damage to the governing coalition.
Sinn Fein, the hard-line Catholic party linked with the outlawed IRA, vowed not to take part in the board and said the SDLP had bowed to British pressure.
Sinn Fein Chairman Mitchel McLaughlin said his party's supporters shouldn't face "intimidation or pressure" to support a new police force. He said Sinn Fein was growing stronger than the SDLP regardless of Catholic church support for the moderate bloc.
The major Protestant party, the Ulster Unionists, has indicated its own support for police reform would depend on whether moderate Catholics joined the project. Ulster Unionists loathe many of the changes planned for the RUC, which has had more than 300 members killed and thousands maimed in terrorist attacks since 1969.