“The generals feared they were too far ahead of their troops..”

In today’s Irish News Patrick Murphy identifies the correct questions to ask in order to understand the current blocking of the Northern Ireland Executive by Sinn Féin.

Two questions are central to understanding the row which is preventing the Stormont executive from meeting – does it matter if policing powers are devolved and was there agreement at St Andrews on the devolution date? The answer to the first question is a matter of opinion. The answer to the second is a matter of fact.

That “matter of fact” has already also been identified by others. And, in case anyone hasn’t been paying attention, Patrick Murphy focuses on the correct issues too [no subs req]. Added links throughout.

The ard fheis motion stated that the party’s leadership was mandated to support the police only when the assembly was restored and the ard comhairle was satisfied that policing powers would be transferred. The wording at St Andrews was sloppy but it clearly satisfied the Sinn Féin leadership. This suggests that they may also have received additional assurances from the two governments in one of the many side-deals at the event. But, as Samuel Goldwyn said “a verbal contract is not worth the paper it is written on”. Armed with only a vaguely-worded view from the two governments, Sinn Féin bought into policing.

They received no guarantee on the devolution date and they have no mechanism for determining how or when such a guarantee might be achieved. Their membership of policing boards is in line with the letter of the ard fheis motion, but not with its spirit, which was based on devolution of policing by May 2008. In June, executive meetings stopped.

The generals feared they were too far ahead of their troops. Politically the leadership could not withdraw support from the police and practically they could not achieve devolution as long as the DUP adhered to its view on community confidence. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, they claimed a denial of equality and partnership and brought the executive to a halt.


They created the problem for themselves through three mistakes. They trusted Tony Blair to deliver devolution of policing at a future point when many recognised that he would not be in office.

They failed to get the devolution date agreed in writing and, most significantly, they misread the mood of unionism.

They mistakenly believed that Paisley’s post-election chuckling represented unionist thinking, when it merely represented Paisley.

And on the “matter of opinion”.

Opinion in favour of devolved policing is based on the belief that locals can administer policing better than non-locals.

The argument against devolution is that because of its potential for actual and perceived political misuse, polcing is safer away from local control.

Either way it would make little difference in terms of day-to-day policing.