In his May interviews with all the key players, including the US Envoy Mitchel Reiss, the Irish Times’ Frank Millar elicited the clearest indication at that time of where they all stood on what many people, myself included, pointed to as the pivotal issue in concluding any agreement – policing. In today’s Irish Times his analysis of the St Andrews Agreement – so named because it is, apparently, an agreement between the two governments, for now – is focussed on that issue and he highlights an important point – the lack of detail.[subs req] The governments’ agreement document does set out the understanding on which all else flows in regard to policing
5 We have consistently said that support for policing and the rule of law should be extended to every part of the community. We believe that all the parties share this objective. Notwithstanding the right of every political party to hold the police to account, we believe that there are fundamental principles of support for the police and the courts which underpin any democratic society.
6 We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board.[added emphasis]
7 Discussions on the devolution of policing and justice have progressed well in the Preparation for Government Committee. The governments have requested the parties to continue these discussions so as to agree the necessary administrative arrangements to create a new policing and justice department. It is our view that implementation of the agreement published today should be sufficient to build the community confidence necessary for the Assembly to request the devolution of criminal justice and policing from the British government by May 2008.
While the document specifes the British and Irish governments’ view that by May 2008 such confidence will have been built, it will still be up to a First and Deputy First minister to jointly propose to the Assembly that those powers should be devolved.
In his analysis Frank Millar points to the lack of detail in the published timetable on when Sinn Féin are to call their Ard Fheis on policing, a continuation, in my view, of the position adopted throughout the summer by both the British and Irish governments of holding back on putting public pressure on Sinn Féin to move decisively on the issue. But he also indicated that there appears to be an understanding about when it is due to happen.. assuming there is no slippage.. and he reports a change to the oath of ministerial office that both Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness will take as they adopt their shadow roles, if the parties return a ‘yes’ by 10th November, as well as some other changes worth noting.
Mr Blair’s spokesman was content to leave journalists to study the detail of the published paper, and a quick scan seemed to confirm fears that the devilish detail might not be there. Confusion built further when The Irish Times subsequently asked Downing Street to confirm that Sinn Féin would be required to hold its ardfheis to endorse the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) ahead of the proposed “endorsement by the electorate” in election or referendum form next March.
The reply was that the timing of any ardfheis was a matter for Sinn Féin and it seemed improbable that Dr Paisley would be on the doorsteps “selling” a deal without the republican conference having taken place.
However, light finally fell on darkness when authoritative DUP sources subsequently made clear they were equally unconcerned and pointed back to the published document.
And by their account it suddenly appeared that the really significant “movement” that had occurred had been on the part of the British and Irish governments, and that the DUP might be emerging from this process having achieved a considerable triumph.
According to this assessment, shared with Downing Street, Sinn Féin’s endorsement of the PSNI would come two weeks before the formal nomination of Dr Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness as First and Deputy First Ministers designate on November 24th. At that point the parties are required to confirm acceptance or rejection of the St Andrews agreement, paragraph six of which says: “We believe the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the PSNI and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board.”
The DUP regard “all the policing and criminal justice institutions” as including the British Security Service, MI5, and the Special Branch.
Moreover, The Irish Times has been told that one of yesterday’s “sidebar deals” will see Dr Paisley and Mr McGuinness swear a new oath, including explicit endorsement of the police and the courts, before the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The same oath would apply to all ministers assuming office as the Executive would “go live” next March. The DUP sources claimed this oath had been approved by other parties to the talks, including the SDLP and Ulster Unionists.
However, as if this would not be surprise enough, it was also claimed last night that the DUP has secured Mr Blair’s agreement to nominate one of its nine MPs to Westminster’s Security and Intelligence Committee – a move they believe would leave them no longer reliant on the Independent Monitoring Commission as they seek to “test” republican promises against actions on the ground.
It is not clear yet to what extent Sinn Féin is a party to any such scenario. However, what is clear beyond doubt is that should this come to pass it would mark a massive reversal of Sinn Féin’s declared position, requiring institutions to be “up and running” and a firm date for the devolution of policing powers to the Stormont Assembly before party president Gerry Adams could consider going to a special conference to finally resolve the policing issue.[added emphasis throughout]
For all the natural disposition to resist hype and spin, what was also unmistakable last night was a professed belief – again shared between the DUP and the British government – that what has taken place in the last few days might just prove “bigger than the Belfast Agreement”.
For now, it remains an agreement between the governments, by November 10th we should know what the parties answers are.. but there is still some way to go to March 26th 2007… including another IMC report in January which, notwithstanding any changes in membership of the Security and Intelligence Committee, will need to be a lot clearer on those grey areas