Steadying the ships for stormy seas..

While the DUP steady the ship after their much publicised meeting, the UUP’s Reg Empey predicts stormy seas ahead for the rival unionist party. But there were other meetings taking place yesterday. Church of Ireland Primate, Robin Eames emerged from a meeting with senior DUP representatives singing from a familiar hymn sheet and, as reported by Frank Millar in the Irish Times, a much quieter affair altogether took place at Prime Minister Blair’s country retreat, Chequers.. The guest? Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams. As the IT report notes – “Neither Sinn Féin nor Downing Street would comment on the meeting”[subs req]From the Irish Times report[subs req]

British prime minister Tony Blair met Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams at Chequers yesterday as efforts continued to secure a Sinn Féin ardfheis on policing ahead of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly scheduled for March.

Neither Sinn Féin nor Downing Street would comment on the meeting, seemingly held at Mr Blair’s country retreat in part at least to avoid media attention.

However, usually reliable sources have acknowledged that sequencing would once again be crucial in any successful attempt to resolve the standoff between the stated DUP and Sinn Féin positions on the modalities and timetable for the devolution of policing and justice powers to Stormont. The British government appears confident it can resolve the MI5 issue with Sinn Féin, while pressure is mounting on the republicans to hold a special ardfheis to change party policy and finally endorse the policing arrangements in Northern Ireland.

A draft protocol – or memorandum of understanding – is being prepared which will define the future roles of, and the relationship between, the Security Service, MI5, and the PSNI. It is understood this will incorporate the key principles and accountability arrangements set out in the St Andrews Agreement in preparation for the Security Service assuming the lead responsibility for “national security” issues in the North late next year.

Those protocols will, undoubtedly, be closely examined.. and compared with the Annex on MI5 contained in the St Andrews Agreement. But, given the demand for a confirmed date for devolution of policing and justice by Adams before he will go to the party’s Ard Chomhairle to call for a special Ard Fheis to further discuss the issue, and the pointing to a motion passed by the party on policing earlier this year as justification for that demand, it will be interesting to see how those protocols are presented as tallying with the last motion passed by the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle in response to the St Andrews Agreement

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 this.”[added emphasis]

It was noticeable that SF have modified their statements on the issue of MI5 in recent days, restricting the references to “no role for MI5 in civic policing”

Although Gerry Kelly stepped back from that somewhat, when he appeared on the BBC’s Hearts and Minds this week, and stated that he did not “accept that MI5 have a place in Ireland”.

Meanwhile as Frank Millar reports

At the same time British sources acknowledge they have not yet found a way to persuade Mr Adams to call an ardfheis without prior agreement on the modality for a Stormont policing ministry and the projected timetable for the transfer of powers spelt out by the British and Irish governments in the St Andrews Agreement.

Without an ardfheis in January, however, there are some indications that London will consider cancelling the planned Assembly elections. Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain has stopped short of threatening this, while insisting the long-awaited ardfheis should take place “sooner rather than later”. However, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said earlier this week there would be no point in elections if an ardfheis had not been held to enable an agreement with the DUP to form a government by the March 26th deadline.

It remains possible that the reality is simply that “the problem with the peace process may be much greater than has yet been realised” – which would mean the distinctions between target dates and commitments and deadlines and conditions are even more important to recognise.