“the problem with the peace process may be much greater than has yet been realised”

The Irish Times’ Frank Millar does the kind of nit-picking analysis that gives journalism a good name even if, as he says, some self-interested parties regard it “as decidedly unhelpful. It is as if ignoring the issue – or taking the parties to mean other than what they say – would make resolution easier.” In today’s Times he asks – “Does Gerry Adams think to lead his republican constituency to a new position on policing by lying to it?”He expects some to rebuke the asking of the question.

Some would also doubtless rebuke this correspondent for insisting on asking this question, instead of taking Mr Adams at face value. After all, there are plenty of instances of him turning republican policy on its head – most spectacularly when he accepted a Northern Ireland Assembly as part of the Good Friday accord just days after vowing there would be “no return to Stormont”.

Yet the reality is that – while the British, Irish and American governments might know something not yet shared with the rest of us – it is difficult to find evidence of the Sinn Féin leadership saying one thing in public and a different thing in private on this, the most neuralgic issue for republicans.

It is many years now since Mitchel Reiss’s predecessor as American envoy, Richard Haass, thought the policing issue was done and dusted. Time and again in the intervening period, critical negotiations have been attended by the assurance that republicans “know what they have to do and are going to do it”.

Was support for the post-Patten police not actually implicit in the Belfast Agreement? Certainly it was, or appeared to be, in the abortive negotiation which finally finished David Trimble in 2003.

Yet somehow we never quite get there, the issue always remaining among the final difficult hurdles to be overcome.

Yet hope springs eternal. So earlier this year a speech by Sinn Féin’s Gerry Kelly was widely interpreted as signalling a dramatic shift in position when, on any reading, it amounted to a restatement of the party’s long-established terms for supporting “civic policing” as part of a political settlement in Northern Ireland.

Likewise, after the St Andrews Agreement, some in government and elsewhere behaved as if Sinn Féin has already crossed the Rubicon – when more accurately it might be said that it appears on the brink of some decision, but with plenty of road marked out for possible retreat in any “blame game”.

There are also the instances where futuring was employed and it’s worth remembering some of the manoeuvrings on policing in September, ahead of St Andrews

Frank Millar goes back to look at the SF response to the St Andrews Agreement

Some ministers and officials regard such nit-picking analysis as decidedly unhelpful. It is as if ignoring the issue – or taking the parties to mean other than what they say – would make resolution easier. Hence, even now, the divergence between the DUP and the Northern Ireland Office over whether a pledge supporting the Police Service of Northern Ireland is necessary to ensure the designation of First and Deputy First Ministers on November 24th is described as an unfortunate misunderstanding.

In reality, this gaping hole in the road to devolution is matched only by the conditions and caveats writ large in the Sinn Féin ardchomhairle’s grudging acknowledgment that the St Andrews text “has the potential” to deliver a return to powersharing government at Stormont.

Not the least important of these might be Sinn Féin’s insistence that St Andrews bring about “the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement”.

British legislation to be published tomorrow will contain a new pledge of office to be sworn by ministers joining the proposed Executive next March.

And it is possible to imagine Sinn Féin ministers taking a pledge couched in the distinctly aspirational terms of paragraph six of the St Andrews text.

However, it is equally likely that Sinn Féin might regard a pledge requiring explicit prior endorsement of the PSNI as a “precondition” falling outside the terms of the Belfast Agreement; with the party regarding as beside the point that the same can be said of its demand for prior agreement on the modality and timetable for the devolution of policing and justice powers.

And he notes that the response included an explicit rejection of Annex E

Moreover, far from signalling a U-turn, the party’s ruling executive appears to have raised the stakes by explicitly opposing a key element of the St Andrews text – that dealing with the British government’s proposals for the role of MI5 in new “national security” arrangements.

“Sinn Féin is committed to bring an end to decades of repressive and sectarian policing,” said the ardchomhairle: “We reject any role for MI5 in Ireland or in civic policing. We want to see democratically accountable civic policing and we will continue to work until we achieve that.”

Maybe Mr Adams is bluffing, for surely even he would not think to deny MI5’s legitimate interest in monitoring any al-Qaeda or any other terrorist threat manifesting itself in Northern Ireland?

However, some expert observers suspect his opposition to any role for the “spooks” working with the PSNI signals that Sinn Féin might not be ready or willing finally to resolve the issue. As asked on this page last Saturday, why pick a fight you know you cannot win?

He spots a possible area of fudge ahead

Against that, Mr Adams’s speech in Belfast on the eve of the St Andrews gathering appeared to hold open the possibility of Sinn Féin moving to membership of the policing board as a possible first step. The British and Irish governments would doubtless herald such a development as another “seismic” shift pointing to but one inevitable, happy outcome.

The unionist reaction, on the other hand, would be to regard it as a classic example of republicans bowling it short.

Before asking a much more fundamental question of the entire Process ™

But why would Sinn Féin again bowl short if they know they will have no unionist partner without final endorsement of the police?

Before travelling to Scotland, some senior British sources suggested that demanding it “upfront” was the problem, because “this would mean they are accepting the legitimacy of the state”. But if that is the case, the problem with the peace process may be much greater than has yet been realised.