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N. Ireland Unionists Postpone Decision On Police Reform - 2001-08-21

Unionist political leaders in Northern Ireland want more time to consider whether to support Britain's plans for a major overhaul of police services in the troubled province. The delay comes as a new opinion poll shows only one-quarter of Britons think Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland has seen another deadline slip, as unionist political parties have postponed a decision on whether to support police reform.

Britain had given Northern Ireland's politicians until noon Tuesday to decide, but the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionists say they need more time to study the plan.

Britain is proposing a major overhaul of Northern Ireland's police force, with the goal of recruiting equal numbers of Protestant and Roman Catholic officers.

Northern Irish Catholics have long complained of repression under the predominately Protestant police force, while unionists see the police as their front-line defense against republican terrorism.

On Monday, the moderate, largely Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party came out in favor of Britain's police reform plan, as did Northern Ireland's Catholic bishops.

The Irish government also has endorsed the plan, and the United States has called it "constructive and far-sighted."

The leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, John Hume, says he hopes Catholics will join the new police force. "We will respond positively," Mr Hume said, "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."

However, the hard-line nationalist party Sinn Fein is rejecting the reform package, saying it falls short of earlier offers.

As the debate over police reform goes on, a new opinion poll finds that only one-quarter of Britons think Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom.

The poll was published Tuesday in the Guardian newspaper. It finds that four out of 10 Britons think Northern Ireland should join the Irish republic, while one third of those polled are undecided.

The figures reflect a sharp drop in public support for retaining Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, compared with earlier surveys.