Spy case does not touch political fundamentals

When all is said and done, it is hard to see how the spy drama changes any of the fundamentals. So argues Brian Walker in last night’s Telegraph. This one is worth preserving for posterity:

STICKING my neck out a little but not too far, I can’t see how the Stormontgate saga much affects the prospects for restoring the Assembly one way or the other. Whether it was an authentic IRA intelligence gathering operation or a Special Branch sting or a bit of both, the distinction hardly seems to matter much, the more you look at it.

Sinn Fein playing the role of the injured party still wants political talks to start as soon as possible, Gerry Adams having graciously absolved Tony Blair of all personal blame. The DUP and the SDLP are again thrust into alliance over Stormontgate as they are over the OTRs. Whether this can develop into a challenge to Sinn Fein and bipolar politics may turn out to be one of the surprise main themes of the coming year.

For now, the two parties must know their chances of getting at the whole truth are around nil. Just as Sinn Fein must know that even if Tony Blair were to swear on the high altar of Westminster Cathedral that MI5 was being withdrawn, its agents will nevertheless continue to operate, as will the reorganised Special Branch. These are among the enduring if not much talked about facts of any new settlement.

Stormontgate is part of the detritus of the Troubles we need to leave behind after a good rant or few. If anyone were to be found trussed up and dead in a ditch in the coming weeks or so, that would change everything utterly. It would throw us back far further than we were a year ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Northern Bank raid.

The McCartneys’ visit to Tony Blair yesterday was another reminder of that other piece of unfinished business that must be weighed in the balance before political talks bear fruit. The two Premiers will meet next month to try to kick start the whole process back into life, hopefully without any unsettling shocks or sensations during 2006.

Which brings us to the devolution of justice and policing. Mind boggling as it may seem even after the IRA’s July statement and decommissioning, the Government’s plans include handing over those powers to an Assembly after a May 2007 election. After a Bill is introduced in the Commons in a few weeks’ time, Sinn Fein will sign up to support the police. That’s the theory.

In the aftermath of Denis Donaldson’s outing, we won’t have long to wait before we find out if Gerry Adams tries to up the price of joining the Policing Board. The next step in the crab-like process will be the International Monitoring Commission’s report next month or early February, relying heavily as usual on Special Branch assessments of IRA activity.

How will Sinn Fein respond if the IMC awards them an (almost) clean bill of health, courtesy of the Branch, I wonder? Say thank you?

© 2005 Independent News and Media (NI) a division of Independent News & media (UK) Ltd

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty