WE seem to be at the ‘tying-up-loose-ends’ stage of the political process, or at least, that’s the impression we’re supposed to be getting. But there are some pretty fundamental issues to be addressed if this really is the endgame that is supposed to precede the return of a devolved government. Cracks are opening up as the parties get down to the nitty-gritty of policing, justice and dealing with the past…Issues such as the proposed amnesty for suspected terrorist fugitives and the debate over the degree of independence restorative justice groups will have from the State show how far there is to go. The Secretary of State attempted to paper over those cracks this week in a Commons’ committee, but – as usual – he only managed to annoy almost everyone.

Republicans might not be pleased about Peter Hain’s refusal to countenance ‘two-tier policing’, meaning State involvement in community restorative justice schemes (CRJs). But this is all for appearances sake; once Sinn Fein takes its seats on the Policing Board, opposition to State intervention to CRJs will disappear like snow off a ditch, as mainstream republicanism will be part of that State, even if it doesn’t agree to be bound by the same rules as the rest of society – power without responsiblity? CRJ can work, only if it adheres to commonly agreed democratic principles.

Unionists will be dismayed by the plans for suspected IRA members on the run from the authorities (OTRs) to be allowed back into the country without fear of conviction. Others might wonder why fugitives from the law should be allowed back, while fugitives from the IRA won’t have the same courtesy extended to them.

When the LibDems brought it up the other day, the Secretary of State was asked in the House: “Does he agree that one way in which the IRA could help others to gain trust is by publicly stating that anyone who has been exiled from their home by the IRA during the troubles is free to return home safely and without retribution?

Mr. Hain: I agree. The hon. Lady makes an important point on exiling.”

LibDem Lorely Burt was letting Hain off the hook with the question, by not questioning why the issue had been de-linked from OTRs. Hain might regard the point as it stood as “important” in the House, but not important enough to actually do anything about it outside it.

It is a pretty clear case of the rights of some are more equal than others, the ‘others’ in this case being those exiled from NI. You’d think the new Victims Commissioner would’ve something to say on the subject of a hierarchy of victims, surely…

None of this matters to Peter Hain, of course. He announced a 19% rise in NI’s regional rates at a press conference, and a smoking ban for Northern Ireland that his own party can’t even agree to introduce in England. To imagine he might actually care about what anyone here thinks is wilfully naive.

The aim of the Government is, as always, to keep everyone peace processing.

But a toothless Victim’s Commissioner here, or a watchtower demolition there when surveillance methods have moved on, is just eye candy for the masses. These are called confidence building measures, although arguably their main function is as a confidence trick. They are largely meaningless, theatrical gestures that allow the DUP and Sinn Fein to blow their own trumpets, to demonstrate that, when they play politics, they get ‘rewards’.

These are just Pavlovian pats on the head for good behaviour. They don’t really mean very much in reality, but have more symbolic value. But, like poor dumb animals that just love the attention and gratefully chase the ball every time it’s thrown, SF and the DUP don’t want to acknowledge that someone else is really in charge. And even if they did catch on, they all have to keep playing the game to maintain the fiction that everything is just great and keep the pats on the heads coming. They translate into votes, so it’s in everyone’s interests to keep processing, right?

(The only thing the DUP and SF seem to agree on, is that Northern Ireland should have greater control over its own finance, but each and every time the words ‘Barnett formula’ get mentioned, or tax altering powers are floated, the Treasury is as quick to slap Francie down as it is to whack the DUP one round the chops for having the temerity to suggest that they should have their paws on the purse strings.)

But once the sweeties run out, the DUP and Sinn Fein – and possibly even the British Government – will have to face some seriously soul-searching questions in this phase of the peace process.

The questions largely revolve around the recognition of the State’s authority, and the State’s willingness (or lack of it) to shift its own definitions of what is and is not acceptable, and to admit when it has crossed its own boundaries. Unionists and others will be told to jump on board, and if they don’t take the bait, they’ll be sidelined by the Government again.

This is a bit of an invidious position for unionists, since Sinn Fein and the British share certain parallel interests right now. The amnesty for IRA fugitives has been conceded in principle, which unionists may come to see as a travesty of natural justice that recalls the early release of terrorists. Both have ideas about a form of policing at a lower level, which unionists see as underming the primacy of the State. Both have a vested interest in ensuring that the truth about the past is suppressed.

If OTRs aren’t going to be punished for alleged crimes, then neither will members of the security forces in any future proceedings. They might be concerned about their actions being equated with those of suspected terrorists, but the lack of real consequences for past actions on either side means there is no incentive for anyone to tell the truth to any future Truth Commission and undermines the needs of victims.

Republicans are keen to see criminals make direct amends to their victims in restorative justice schemes, but there will be no such equivalent when it comes to OTRs; the current proposals mean that victims will not be given the opportunity to see paramilitary fugitives in court, even if they never have to serve a day.

What many unionists (and others, though not all) regard as the rule of law, the authority of the State or natural justice is being gradually eroded by a collaboration between the Government and Sinn Fein. And you can’t just point the finger at every Prod or unionist and say they all support or turn a blind eye to loyalist terrorism. It’s ironic that the SDLP seems to be fighting harder to maintain the authority and integrity of the PSNI than the Government.

Blair is eager to get things sorted out before the end of his presidency – he’s got one last shot at some kind of historical peace-making legacy that might mitigate his decision to go to war on a lie – and he’ll want to keep the pace up after the new year by pressuring unionism to accept whatever he and Gerry concoct. It will likely mean another ‘quick fix’ solution slathered in spin to try and hide the inherent weaknesses of any secretive sectarian deal before it comes apart at the seams again.