John A Murphy casts a sceptical eye over the ‘policing debate’ that has been raging within Republicanism (ie, despite his opening questions, not simply that going on within Sinn Fein). He starts with a number of questions, not least its enduring agnosticism regarding the legitimacy of the state (north and south):
WHAT has the policing debate told us about Sinn Fein now? What light does it throw on the organisation’s mindset as it prepares to contest two elections in the next few months? In particular, what points should be noted by citizens of this republic?
According to Murphy, the parameters of the SF debate were prescriptively tight:
The basis of the great debate was the ard chomhairle motion of January 15. Its characteristic self-righteous tone persisted throughout the ‘town hall’ meetings that followed. Everybody except Sinn Fein was blamed for the situation, and the prevailing view was that the party would be doing the PSNI a great favour by accepting it, in order “to hold the police and criminal justice systems, north and south, fully to account”. After the ard fheis, SF continued to insist that the PSNI would have to gain its trust, not vice versa.
But he argues, the result was never in doubt: not least because Sinn Fein, in realistic terms, had nowhere else to go, but the “political wilderness”. Only “southern Shinners and Ogra Sinn Fein opposed the motion because they could enjoy the academic luxury of ideological purism”.
He went on to note that throughout the debates:
…the SDLP was castigated for accepting the PSNI too soon, though Mark Durkan’s party claims credit for bringing about the policing changes which enabled SF to make its move. At the ard fheis, Conor Murphy MP vilified SDLP councillors for “wining and dining with senior RUC officers”. The accusation of selling out for the fleshpots is a classic (and cheap) charge, periodically levelled by strident nationalists against their more moderate opponents. One thinks of jibes against the Redmondites for dining in the Viceregal Lodge, or Michael Collins for living it up in London during the Treaty negotiations. The SF leadership, in turn, was accused of betraying the cause for “houses in Donegal”.
The line being taken consistently was: “power-sharing was the quid pro quo, followed by the restoration of all-Ireland institutions. On Sunday night last on the RTE’s The Week in Politics, Pat Doherty claimed that the ard fheis heralded the endgame – “reunification”. This bizarre sequencing caused Ian Paisley Jnr to guffaw heartily (am I alone in finding the Shinners’ use of “Ian Og” skin-crawlingly absurd?)”.
Which remark occasioned him to question Sinn Fein’s contradictory approach to the only people likely to effect the political unification of the island by consent: the unionists:
SF’s approaches to the unionists are contradictory. The emphasis on inexorable progress to unification is hardly calculated to inspire trust at the levels of policing board, assembly or executive. There is scant SF respect for the North’s constitutional position within the UK, which for unionists was the redeeming feature of the Belfast Agreement. And then there is the curious SF “charm offensive” (the terrorist offensive didn’t work) designed to persuade unionists that, if only the scales fell from their eyes, they would realise they are Irish like the rest of us. This is an old nationalist approach – Gerry Adams employed it in the transitional assembly in December, arguing disingenuously that since some Presbyterians were United Irishmen in the 1790s, their descendants today should renounce their Britishness. This cut little ice with Paisley and Co.
Finally, he notes that Sinn Fein’s provisional acceptance of policing in Northern Ireland may raise it’s electoral fortunes in the Republic, but that its agnostic attitude towards the state itself, will raise a number of concerns for its wider citizenry:
The party may be well advanced on the journey to full acceptability, a journey completed in their day by Fianna Fail, Clann na Poblachta and SF the Workers’ Party. But as of now SF is still constitutionally ambivalent and it yet has to show that “loyalty to the State” which the constitution (Article 9.2) enjoins on all citizens. If itholds the balance of power after the next election, if it has enough seats to keep a minority government in office (whether its support is sought or otherwise) concerned citizens will be worried by a potentially disruptive and destabilising presence in our body politic.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty