Sinn Féins strategy on Policing and Justice has largely been to focus on the St Andrews Agreement, and policing as totemic issue to republicans. The details of that have been debated somewhat endlessly on this site already, but the key point is that this effectively reduces the argument to a semantic one split along sectarian lines.Returning to fundamentals, Republicanism must ultimately be about better government. Nationalism must be about the idea that Irish people are better equipped to govern themselves than anyone else. In order for this to be the case, new powers devolved are not enough: they must be a vehicle for new policy. The discussion paper on which powers would be devolved lists a wide range of powers that could be transferred, including the ability to specific new offences; devolution in itself would give control of both the purse strings and appointments. Together that would form a powerful platform to get new ideas implemented.
Unfortunately, Sinn Fein does not seem to have many. The policy section of the website produces only three papers on Justice & the Community, one of which dates form the 90s. Similarly, the Sinn Féin Manifesto for the 2007 Dáil Election can be vague on the issues: Ensure robust enforcement of the law and prosecution of offenders involved in criminal behaviour hardly counts as an actionable policy. Where they are strong or specific tends to be when dealing with the accountability of the system create an Ombudsman, organise policing partnerships, implement a system for victims liaisons. On initiatives to actually tackle crime however, they are largely silent.
But the accountability mechanisms in the North have largely been built. Recent events in West Belfast have sharply illustrated the need for new ideas to tackle anti-social and violent crime. Dissident Republicans can no longer be dealt with by the threat of swift reprisals by the Provisionals. There is a pressing need within their own communities for new ideas on crime. There is a second level to this failure. Regardless of the spin, the figures for supporting the transfer of powers are fairly healthy, even among Unionists. Accountability has never been a particularly hot button issue among Unionists, but law and order issues gain reliable support. Presenting devolution of Policing and Justice in this context allows SF to attempt to attempt to build support for the move outside their own community, set the direction of policy and expose the paucity of Unionist thinking.
This after all, was the promise of devolution for Republicans: the ability to shape the government and win new converts through superior argument. That is true outreach. It is perhaps naive to think that an argument on the merits would be successful in the face of a DUP apparently hell bent on causing Nationalism as much pain as possible. But it is an important plank that needs built if we are to move beyond current sectarian silos. Republicans need to get on it.