Gerry Kelly has given an address to an all Ireland police and justice conference. It’s hard to know what to make of it since it refers to events and discussions that are not in, nor are ever likely to come into, the public domain. The party’s current position is the same as that agreed (in principle) with the DUP before Christmas (and the Northern Bank robbery): ie Sinn Fein would recognise the police only after the devolution of policing powers to local ministers. However Kelly, a senior member of Sinn Fein’s negotiating team seems to be hinting at a shift in the party’s stance, in what are likely to be billateral negotiations with the British government in the next few months:
It is not an impossible task and republicans need to be acutely aware that if and when the Sinn Fein leadership achieves the objectives it set in this area then this is turn will present further challenges for all activists. There is a public commitment if we reach that point to then put proposals to our membership and nationalism as a whole. While we are not at that point yet, activists need to realise that we can achieve it and with achievement there comes further responsibility.
Mr Kelly told the conference:
In the poisoned atmosphere created by political policing which I have just listed, the question is, is it possible to achieve a new policing dispensation. The answer to that is yes. Negotiations herald change. Change brings turmoil and soul searching. It also means breaking moulds. As political activists we must think strategically, debate strategically and decide what is best for our party, for the cause we represent and most importantly for the people we represent. We must do that in partnership and in dialogue with our community. Last December in theory at least, we were within months of having a decisive debate on this issue. Delegates were encouraged to go back to their areas and open up the debate within Sinn Fein and their communities.
Is this a sign perhaps the leadership is considering shifting its negotiating position of recognising the police before getting ministerial control? And the end note is just as enigmatic as Adams’ call on the Republican movement on the first day of the election campaign last April, and which eventually led to the IRA decommissioning the bulk of its arsenal last September:
I repeat that call today. Keep that discussion going.
So is this internal change management, or public bluff? Considering the unending pressure on the party over spying, their enforced public u-turn on OTR legislation, the controversy over the funding of the Community Restorative Justice schemes, and perhaps especially the eighteen month countdown to the Republic’s next general election, the party may be keen to put an end to the bad run its had in the media and seek closure on their position within Northern Ireland. So it may well be the former.
But as the man says, I wouldn’t bet the farm it.
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