07 May 2006

Sinn Fein could recognise PSNI within months

Sunday Business Post

By Colm Heatley
07 May 2006

Since the formation of the Northern state, republicans have consistently refused to recognise the legitimacy of the police.

For more than 80 years that position has remained unchanged, if anything it has become more entrenched, but should the Assembly elect a power-sharing government this November, it is likely that Sinn Fe¤ in will endorse the PSNI by the end of the year.

Such an endorsement would represent a seismic shift in the North’s political landscape and a dramatic shift in republicans’ relationship with the state.

For many grassroots republicans, cooperation with a police force which they regard as an armed wing of unionism will be a bitter pill to swallow.

However, over the past two years Sinn Fein has prepared its supporters for the day when the leadership will endorse the PSNI. In January Sinn Fein’s policing spokesman, Gerry Kelly, told a republican conference that ‘‘hard choices lay ahead’’ in relation to policing.

The price for republican cooperation with the PSNI is straightforward - they want policing powers taken away from Whitehall and transferred to the devolved Assembly at Stormont.

For republicans this means more accountability and direct involvement at the highest levels of policing, a chance said one republican delegate at Sinn Fein’s ard fheis to go ‘‘toe to toe with the political detectives’’.

The ard fheis policing debate was one of the most contentious this year, a sign of grassroots unease at supporting the PSNI, a force they regard as fundamentally unchanged from their predecessors in the RUC.

That perception was reinforced by the series of informer allegations levelled at well-known republican figures in Belfast in January.

The allegations, many of which turned out to be false, emanated from within senior PSNI ranks and republicans believe they were designed not only to destabilise the peace process but to make it more difficult to persuade the grassroots that the time was right to cut a deal on policing.

Last week one of the key figures behind those claims was in England talking to publishers about a book deal that would unleash a fresh wave of allegations against senior republicans who he is accusing of being long-standing British agents.

For republicans it is a sign that the war being waged in the shadows is far from over.

Despite those difficulties there has been consistent pressure on the Sinn Fein leadership to support the police.

Their refusal to do so was the reason given by the Bush administration for denying Gerry Adams a fundraising visa for the US on St Patrick’s Day.

Republicans, though, shy away from talking about Sinn Fein’s intentions on policing, except to say that ‘‘when the conditions are right republicans have indicated their intention to move forward on the policing issue’’.

However on the ground, at least anecdotally, little has changed in the relationship between the PSNI and republicans.

A few months ago a relative of a former republican prisoner committed suicide.

When the PSNI arrived a minor argument broke out and within moments the police had used pepper spray to ‘subdue’ the grieving relative.

Policing has always been the coalface issue in the North, for republicans at least. The history of policing in the North is chequered at best. In the early 1920s senior RUC men in the North were involved in organising the pogroms during which hundreds of Catholic families were forced out of their homes at gunpoint and over 200 killed.

At the start of the Troubles it was the RUC who baton charged civil rights demonstrators and later stood back while Protestant mobs attacked nationalist homes.

Over the course of the Troubles the RUC killed 52 people, nearly all Catholics and many of them children and teenagers.

Added to that was the RUC’s role in raiding homes, arresting and interrogating thousands of nationalists and firing plastic bullets at republican protestors.

The failure of the Patten reforms to deliver real change in the structure of policing has not helped those republicans who argue that Sinn Fein should endorse the PSNI.

Last year one of the key architects of the Patten Commission said the proposals had been ‘‘cherry picked’’.

Professor Clifford Shearing said the reforms had been diluted and watered down and said he questioned what the point of the Patten Commission had been.

Despite all of those difficulties it is near certain that Sinn Fein will endorse the PSNI Those in favour argue that only by getting policing powers devolved and taking on ‘‘the political detectives’’ will republicans be able to influence the shape of policing in the North.

Those against supporting the police say that argument is too close to the reformist policies of the SDLP who over the course of the Troubles encouraged nationalists to support the police because the best way to achieve change was from inside.

However, the realpolitik of the situation is that the DUP and UUP will at the very least demand Sinn Fe¤ in support for the police if they are to agree to forma power-sharing executive this November.

The Irish, British and American governments will support that demand, as will the SDLP.

In the absence of any further policing reforms this November will be as good a time as any for Sinn Fein to acquiesce.

Such a decision will have far-reaching consequences for the North and will remove one of the last great obstacles to the peace process.

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