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.