On our conditional way to a conditional future?

So it looks like Northern Ireland is going to get a conditional green light for an early election. Conditional because although Sinn Fein appeared to take a giant step towards agreeing to normal policing, the motion passed by the party’s extraordinary conference was heavily conditional on the DUP keeping to the St Andrews timetable.

Of course since the DUP gave its overall approval, that should leave the Secretary of State for Wales, etc. free to fire a belated starting pistol to finally get our politicians off the repetitive mill of sectarianised point scoring and inside the Assembly Chamber to work on deliberative policy making, over issues that matter in every other part of these islands. That’s certainly how Sinn Fein want it to be perceived.

Except that, just to complicate matters, it has slipped in a little detail that remains important to the party’s base, but is not part of the St Andrews timetable:

The devolution of policing and justice to the assembly.

The party has been trying to spin what is merely a government objective into an obligatory deadline for such a transfer. It’s a crucial issue for the party because it allows the Sinn Fein leadership to claim that the major democratic oversight for the PSNI will be local (and therefore, by its own narrow definition, not British). It was also a pre condition imposed by the party membership upon its own leadership: a pre-condition that the leadership signally failed to deliver through its negotiation of the St Andrews Agreement.

However it should not be underestimated the degree to which the party which has finally accepted normal policing in the rest of the motion. Lawrence McKeown writing in Sinn Fein’s house journal An Phoblacht charts a journey from uncompromising fundamentalism in which (theoretically) only the IRA had the right to police Northern Ireland, to acceptance of a common standard for policing and justice within a constitutional frame. There is little reason to doubt that that journey is now nearing real (as opposed to a merely purported) completion.

But the party has also made actioning that principle contingent on persuading the DUP that Sinn Fein now accepts standards it would not have done just two years ago given its highly ambivalent attitudes towards the robbery of the Northern Bank, and the brutal killing of Robert McCartney. The DUP would have to accept that what’s left of policing and justice powers, after counter terror intelligence is shuffled ‘safely’ inside a locally unaccountable MI5, and direction of the prosecution service is firmly anchored in London, is to be devolved into local hands.

And yet despite the public protests of the latter that agreement to open standards of policing and justice should never under any circumstances be conditional, there is actually little left in this deal that will frighten DUP horses.

Peter Hain looks set to announce the dissolution of this powerless transitional Assembly at midnight tonight on condition that these two (formerly extremist) parties can agree a political stable deal by the end of March (or with some coordinated slippage) April, or possibly May.

Given the position of political strength held by both parties in their respective communities it is surely beyond reasonable doubt that they can do it. The question is, will they agree within the timeframe that the two governments and Sinn Fein clearly want?

For Tony Blair it is a question of legacy. For Sinn Fein it is a question of a boost in time for an election campaign in the Republic, where their poll rating has been in steady (and potentially ruinous) decline since the Northern Bank robbery.

But, having licensed the DUP (through its negotiation of the St Andrews Agreement) to hold out as long as it sees fit in order to examine whether Sinn Fein’s desire ‘to do the right thing’ is actually being translated on the ground, the closing of that deal remains in the gift of Sinn Fein’s long term bete noir, the Reverend Ian Paisley.

The smart money is going to ground.

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  • parcifal

    well unionists and republicans have tried mating before, but one “pulled out” before conception might have happened.

    Now they want to “do it” again, but this time insist on “contraception.”

    If this can work we can get rid of the “rubber”, and it’ll feel like the “real thing”

  • I’m not sure I agree about the preconditions.

    The SF motion mentions both “the devolution of policing and justice to the assembly”, and opposing “any involvement by the British Security Service/MI5 in civic policing”. What some of the sceptics in SF may not have noticed is the wiggle room that both statements allow for the leadership.

    In the latter case, SF merely have to oppose MI5’s role, not prevent it altogether. And with only a little semantic creativity, any MI5 role in security is easily defined as being outside “civic policing” as such. Once SF are on the inside, they’ll be quite happy for dissident loyalists, republicans, or even islamists, to be watched carefully.

    In the case of devolution of policing and justice, the ard chomhairle need merely be “satisfied that the policing and justice powers will be transferred” – the transfer does not actually have to happen at that point. While this will require some confidence-building from the DUP, it need not be a show-stopper.

    Interestingly the requirement that there be “no place in the PSNI for those guilty of human rights abuses” could work both ways too, preventing (IRA members as well as “colluding securocrats” from taking part in policing.

  • questioner

    Sinn Fein’s “highly ambivalent attitudes,” towards the northern bank robbery and Robert McCartney’s murder. With all due respect Mick did you just make this up! Gerry Adams condemened the murderers of McCartney as barroom thugs. There have been many threads in the past regarding this brutal murder, but please is Tony Blair and his labour party responsible for the behavior of every British soldier. If a British soldier killed someone in a drunken brawl is his commanding officer, or his government responsible for this?

    Regardless Sinn Fein was not “highly ambivalent,” the party condemend the senseless murder of McCartney and also, stated that the robbery of the northern bank was not helpful to the peace process.

    Of course Mick if you are speculating and think the IRA robbed the bank on behalf of Sinn Fein go ahead and speculate away! But please be careful of your words, having read many of your previous blogs I expect more of you. Now, of course, I am highly ambivalent of your attitude–but a reply could certainly change my mind.
    Yours respectfully,

  • Nevin

    Apparently we are due another IMC report today.

    Will the IMC endorse the NIA July 2006 report on organised crime and the associated culture of lawlessness or will there be a whitewash of these activities to faciliate the governments’ Plan A for devolved government?

    Will the IMC condemn the efforts of paramilitaries to present themselves as role models for children and young people – or will it remain silent and permit the poison to seriously damage the new generation?

  • q,

    If you follow the links you will see a mapping of the party’s response to the murder in great detail. Ambivalent is just about right, if not veering to an unwarrantedly liberal interpretation.

    Re the NB robbery:

    Despite the fact that belief that the IRA actually did the robbery is widespread in NI, not least within the Republican heartland, I have NEVER said they did it. The nearest I got was to suggest they were closest to the cookie jar when it happened.

    For what it is worth, I have not veered from my original position stated in early January 2005, that a clear connection would require evidence to emerge. Such evidence has not emerged, despite statements from the Garda Chief Commissioner indicating the contrary.

    But again, follow the appropriate link above, and you will find that from early on the party was forcused on fielding accusations that the IRA was behind it – even to the point of spreading implausible stories of Loyalist involvement. There were no (so far as I could find) condemnations of the act itself.

    What is that, if not ambivalence?

  • Nevin

    “Such evidence has not emerged”

    Are there sound political reasons for such evidence, if it exists, to be suppressed? Collusion?

  • Greenflag

    Ambivalence ambivalence
    A neccessary condition
    For without it
    Northern Ireland
    Will have to repartition

    The NI State is based on sands
    That shift both night and day
    Does HMG now want to go
    Or does she want to stay .
    For Albion looks both ways at once
    As Janus did of old
    And tells Sinn Fein the very thing
    That makes the DUPers cold

    For black is white and red is blue
    And day is sometimes night
    And the promised NI Assembly
    An expensive heap of shite
    And Hain may be a pain in neck
    And not be often seen
    For he straddles Irish Sea both sides at once
    Ambitious is his mien
    He’d much rather sit in Downing St
    Than on the isle of Green

    No matter what –
    Come rain or hail
    HMG in Ireland
    Will always fail

    Soonest gone
    Soonest mended
    Ireland restored
    And not upended