British ministers are facing a growing challenge from the Northern Ireland Policing Board over a range of issues, including community restorative justice schemes and plans to recruit community service officers under the umbrella of the PSNI.
Members of the board's corporate policy committee have demanded an urgent meeting with the North's political development minister David Hanson, amid growing disquiet about the government's failure so far to consult them regarding the draft guidelines or "protocols" for restorative justice schemes currently being discussed with loyalist and republican community-based groups.
SDLP sources last night confirmed they were in the final stages of the preparation of a detailed dossier on the issue to be presented to British prime minister Tony Blair. The SDLP leadership believes the current proposals have been drafted without regard to the "culture of community control" exercised on the ground by the IRA as well as the loyalist paramilitaries.
Ministers have sought to assure the SDLP that their planned funding of restorative justice schemes to deal with "low-level crime" of common concern to local communities will not amount to a "two-tier" system of policing in the North.
However, ministers have so far failed to give assurances that people with convictions for terrorist offences, or with a known background of terrorist or criminal activity, will be prevented from participation in the schemes.
In meetings with Mr Hanson and Secretary of State Peter Hain, the SDLP has also expressed concern at the failure of the current draft protocols to define "low-level crime", or to require the community-based schemes to make disclosure to, and maintain a direct working relationship with, the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
And last night Ulster Unionist board member Fred Cobain echoed the SDLP's fears, claiming: "The government appears willing to leave our communities to the people who have terrorised them for 30 years."
Condemning the government's failure to disclose the details of the draft protocols to the board, Mr Cobain said: "We are supposed to hold the police to account and there are things going on here which the government won't tell us. Restorative justice is integral to policing, and if they [ ministers] won't consult us I see no point in having a policing board."
Dismissing ministerial assurances, Mr Cobain said he believed the proposals for restorative justice schemes and for the recruitment of community service officers would in effect create two-tier policing in the North.
"The British government appears content to tolerate two levels of policing in Northern Ireland," he said. "One for the rest of the citizens, and another for republicans."
With members of the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party preparing to block the proposal for community service officers, SDLP sources last night confirmed that they, too, are against any such development until the 2,500-strong PSNI part-time reserve envisaged by the Patten Commission has been raised.
Meanwhile, Conservative Northern Ireland spokesman David Lidington has received a number of written parliamentary answers to questions on the detail of the protocols for community restorative justice schemes.
Mr Lidington had asked if a full-time member of the PSNI would be required to be present and actively involved at all stages of such schemes. In reply, Mr Hanson told him there was a statutory obligation for the attendance of police officers at all restorative justice youth conferences operated under earlier British legislation by the Youth Justice Agency, and that there were no plans to change this.
The minister continued: "Separate guidelines being developed for the operation of community-based restorative justice schemes also require schemes to work with criminal justice agencies, including the police", as recommended by the Criminal Justice Review.
Asked if it would be government policy to bar people convicted of scheduled (terrorist) offences from participation in the schemes, Mr Hanson replied: "The draft guidelines currently being developed will include a role for the criminal justice inspectorate in determining the suitability of staff employed by community-based restorative justice schemes."