Looking forward to devolution…

THE Beeb reports the DUP’s Nigel Dodds saying it would be “ludicrous” if people thought Sinn Fein could have ministers in a devolved administration, but not support the security forces. On the face of it, it looks like another one of those pretend ‘who’ll blink first’ debates is under way; the DUP want SF to sign up to policing before entering an executive. Sinn Fein appear to want the reverse.

However, the positions are not mutually exclusive, so we’re not necessarily looking at deadlock. I don’t think the gap is as wide as it looks.

The Sinn Fein position, as outlined by Gerry Kelly on Saturday, is:

Agreement between the parties on the departmental model and the powers to be transferred;

The enactment by the British government of the legislation to give full expression to this transfer of powers; and

A DUP commitment to a short timeframe for the actual transfer of powers on policing and justice.

Then the party president would propose to the Ard Comhairle that it calls a special Ard Fheis to decide Sinn Féins position on new policing arrangements.

Kelly went on to say that in February, “the British government is pledged to publish enabling legislation and a detailed consultation paper on transfer of powers. Both governments know that this will not be enough on its own to honour the commitments given. The devil as they say is in the detail. That will be where the battle will become most fierce.”

What Nigel Dodds seems to suggest is that because unionists would have no confidence in Sinn Fein ministers in charge of policing or justice, Sinn Fein must, inter alia, endorse policing arrangements first.

However, there is wriggle room in Kelly’s statement for meeting that demand, as he suggests that SF’s requirement is for commitments to be nailed down, not necessarily followed through on, before the special Ard Fheis meets.

I think there is little prospect, however, of that Ard Fheis rejecting an offer that SF defines as “the full Patten”. Why would the leadership make an offer that the party could refuse? It doesn’t happen. Kelly’s statement at the weekend suggests he could endorse policing before getting a ministerial portfolio, although this would likely be disguised in verbal fudge.

Ultimately, because of the prospect of British and Irish general elections in 2007, no-one will jump first until after then. So we’re probably looking at Autumn 2007 before a significant shift by either side. At that point, I imagine there will be some carefully constructed choreography to ensure that everyone can do a U-turn/move forward without losing face. I would imagine that the British will continue to throw each side other political trinkets along the way with high symbolic value to ensure their base follows loyally when “themmuns” obtain concessions.

The DUP and Sinn Fein seem more dependent upon each other than before to act in good faith while moving in the same direction for the new talks to succeed. Each relies on the other to get their hands on the levers of power.

Of course, as Kelly said, there’s a political battle to be fought in the meantime, and some serious horse-trading can be expected this year in the run-up to the real watershed in late 2007 – hopefully “events” won’t intervene this time.

Until then, keep ‘processing’!