Ba mhaith liom failte a chur roimh gach duine anseo inniu.
I would like to welcome everyone here today to this conference, hosted by Cuige na Se Chondae and supported by our European Department.
Let me begin by thanking the speakers who have come along here to address this conference on the subject of ‘Developing an All-Ireland vision for Policing and Justice’. Sinn Fein has invited those speakers to engage with us as practitioners or experts in their own fields.
Republicans don’t pretend to have a monopoly on ideas in relation to justice and policing. Neither can we ignore the experience of the community from which we come and whom we serve. As an Irish republican party with a national and democratic agenda, Sinn Fein welcomes new ideas and is eager for new challenges. Ours is the battle of ideas and the politics of change.
Ultimately, as a political party, Sinn Fein will form its own view on these matters. As party members, you will be the people upon whom that responsibility will finally rest.
And it is of course important that you do that on the basis of the maximum information, a full discussion and in the context of overall strategy considerations.
LEADING THE ALL-IRELAND AGENDA
Sinn Fein’s Ard Fheis last year agreed that party policy in relation to justice and policing should be developed. The purpose of this event today is to discuss this and build on the work done since. It is about envisioning the kind of agenda, in relation to justice, which will better serve communities throughout the 32 counties. And the reason we need to do that is very simple:
No other political party on this island is an all-Ireland party.
No other party has an agenda to build an Ireland of equals.
No other political party will champion the rights of the poor and the oppressed better than Sinn Fein.
No other party will confront the inefficiency and corruption of aspects of the justice and policing systems on this island, better than Sinn Fein.
No other party will agitate and articulate at grassroots level in every part of this country for accountable, representative, community-based, civic policing and justice programmes better than Sinn Fein.
The fact is that the overwhelming majority of nationalists in the north and people throughout this island are looking to this party for leadership on policing and justice. They expect us to do our best to secure acceptable civic policing. Today’s event is evidence of our determination to give leadership and achieve acceptable arrangements for policing and justice.
A TRULY NEW BEGINNING
Republicans will not be badgered or forced into accepting less than the new beginning to policing promised in the Good Friday Agreement. This is a fundamental requirement. This Agreement addressed the issue of policing for a very good reason.
The RUC was never a police service. It was a unionist paramilitary militia, which engaged in the most disgraceful sectarianism and abuse of human rights, including torture and murder.
Those who were at the heart of this malign force - the RUC Special Branch - are still active within the PSNI. Their planned overthrow of a democratically elected Assembly three years ago is the evidence of this writ large. They are opposed to change of all kinds and not just the change in policing.
Because of this and as a means to confront and face it down Sinn Fein is determined to achieve the reconstruction of the power sharing Assembly and all Ireland institutions required by the Good Friday Agreement. The historic decisions taken by the IRA in recent months, the ending of its armed campaign and the putting of arms beyond use have removed any excuse or pretext for further delay. Sinn Fein has made it clear to the two governments that the institutions need to be restored. The British and Irish Governments have said that they intend making a serious effort to resurrect the political institutions. We are also committed to achieving and being part of the new policing dispensation. No half measures or three quarter measures will do.
In December 2004 - just over a year ago we had agreement on a sequence of events including the transfer of powers on policing and justice from London to Belfast. But it fell apart because the DUP reneged at the last moment.
Essentially we agreed that in the context of: -
Agreement between the parties on the departmental model and the powers to be transferred;
The enactment by the British government of the legislation to give full expression to this transfer of powers; and
A DUP commitment to a short timeframe for the actual transfer of powers on policing and justice.
Then the party president would propose to the Ard Comhairle that it calls a special Ard Fheis to decide Sinn Feins position on new policing arrangements.
That situation has not changed. It is not Sinn Fein but others who are delaying progress.
NATIONALISTS WANT A POLICING SERVICE
It has been opportunistically and cynically argued by Sinn Fein’s opponents that our position on policing is assisting criminality. Remember former SDLP Chief Seamus Mallon? Last year he said, “The people of West Belfast, West Tyrone and South Armagh do not want policing because if you have policing, you don’t have criminality”.
There is no “rampant crime” in nationalist or republican communities. On the contrary the nationalist and republican people are good, decent people who despite not having had a proper police service for generations have a deep sense of justice, are civic-minded and are eager to embrace proper policing and justice systems.
No one wants a new beginning to policing and justice more than the nationalist and republican people of West Belfast, West Tyrone and South Armagh. I commend all of those who work on the ground to create safer communities through anti-car crime schemes; youth outreach programmes, and especially, Community Restorative Justice projects. They are doing a great service to working class areas.
On restorative justice, since it is being attacked in the media let me make a few points:
1/ restorative justice as a concept is of a global nature. It operates and is working in many societies. Australia and New Zealand to name but two.
2/ republicans do not seek the ownership of the restorative justice concept in an Irish context
3/ restorative justice is not an alternative nor has it ever masqueraded as an alternative to acceptable and accountable policing arrangements
That said, Sinn Fein has been and remains supportive of efforts by the community to establish and operate restorative projects across the north. Equally, there are those in the unionist community who are striving to develop a restorative vision within their own community. Sinn Fein commends all those genuinely working to promote restorative justice at community level. The further development of the Irish model of restorative justice is something which deserves informed debate on a national basis.
Meanwhile, we must acknowledge that there is a real anxiety about the extent and effects of criminality in Irish society today which, we ignore at our peril. We must continue discussions with our communities on how to respond to the challenges and the harm associated with criminality and anti-social activity.
As I said earlier political policing continues apace within the PSNI.
Since last summer alone, the evidence of political policing has been irrefutable. This includes the political policing of loyalist marches; the revelations about former RUC members stealing information and thwarting murder investigations; the discovery that files on dozens of republicans including Sinn Fein elected representatives are kept in the PSNI’s Castlereagh barracks; the fact that these files had been passed onto unionist paramilitaries; politically motivated houseraids in Tyrone, Belfast and Down; trumped up charges and media misinformation orchestrated by sections of the PSNI; the high-profile arrest and false accusations against Sinn Fein MLA Francie Brolly; and the PSNI raid on the Casement Park home of the County Antrim GAA.
Let’s be clear about their agenda. Our political enemies, in the institutions of this state, do not want a Shinner about the place. They don’t want the Good Friday Agreement. They don’t want change. They don’t want acceptable policing institutions and practices which would see Sinn Fein in there policing the police; all of this is anathema to our political enemies. This is the objective of political policing; the self-perpetuation of their power and their failures.
Our political opponents who accepted too little, jumped too soon and endorsed the existing policing arrangements must carry some of the blame. In four years on the Policing Board, they have failed to hold the political detectives publicly to account and failed to end collusion and political policing. Instead, SDLP MPs have gone to Westminster and voted to reintroduce 28-day detention orders, taking us back to the days of the old Special Powers Act so opposed by the Civil Rights Movement.
In reality, they are now part of the police establishment. In that role and in an effort to save political face, they also stand against further change on policing and justice because they believe it will further compromise the positions they took up.
In the poisoned atmosphere created by political policing which I have just listed; the question is; is it possible to achieve a new policing dispensation. The answer to that is yes.
Let me repeat what I said at last years Ard Fheis. The job given to the negotiations team is to achieve a new beginning to policing and justice. We won the argument that the status quo on policing and justice had failed.
We have made significant progress especially through new legislation. Even when the SDLP and Irish government jumped ship, Sinn Fein was able to achieve more necessary change.
We won the argument for further amending legislation.
It is not an impossible task and republicans need to be acutely aware that if and when the Sinn Fein Leadership achieves the objectives set in this area then this in turn will present further challenges for all activists. There is a public commitment if we reach that point to then put proposals to our membership and nationalism as a whole. While we are not at that point yet, activists need to realise that we can achieve it and with achievement there comes further responsibility.
I make no apologises for fighting for an all Ireland justice system as I make no apologises in continuing the struggle for a United Ireland. Equally, in the interim, we need to achieve a new beginning to policing and justice in the North, in the present, which will impact on the everyday lives of people and also impact on the all Ireland policing and justice systems.
Negotiations herald change. Change brings turmoil and soul searching. It also means breaking moulds. If we accept that the political changes over the last decade have caused massive upheaval for the Unionist and British system which has misruled the North for so many years let us also accept that Republicans have had to face and deal with the challenges the political and emotional rollercoaster of change brings.
Nobody said it would be easy. Here is the challenge facing us. As political activists we must think strategically, debate strategically and decide what is best for our party, for the cause we represent and most importantly for the people we represent. We must do that in partnership and in dialogue with our community.
Policing and justice cannot be viewed in isolation from other key issues such as the stability of the interdependent institutions, equality and human rights, demilitarisation, the ending of discrimination, collusion and so on. But we will pursue proper policing and justice with all our energy.
Last December in theory at least, we were within months of having a decisive debate on this issue. Delegates were encouraged to go back to their areas and open up the debate within Sinn Fein and their communities. I repeat that call today. Keep that discussion going.
Our opposition to the present policing arrangements is not a matter of timing. It is not merely a question of tactics. It is a matter of integrity, entitlements and our inalienable rights. At the core of our position is the establishment of a threshold which enables the creation of democratically accountable representative civic policing and the consignment of political policing to the dustbin of history along with the other failures of the past.
That is why Sinn Fein has made this issue a core part of negotiations. In those negotiations, the key outstanding matter is the transfer of powers on policing and justice away from London and out of the hands of British securocrats, into restored local Assembly and all-Ireland institutions. Next month, the British government is pledged to publish enabling legislation and a detailed consultation paper on transfer of powers. Both governments know that this will not be enough on its own to honour the commitments given. The devil as they say is in the detail. That will be where the battle will become most fierce. Because this is not some sham fight or academic debate about the number of clauses in a piece of legislation or the sequence in which they run. This is about giving expression in law to the transfer of powers - taking powers - away from London and out of the hands of the British securocrats. It is about sovereignty, accountability and political change.
It is perhaps inevitable that the key focus publicly is on policing in the North. However, our work today is about developing an all Ireland vision for the future. In that respect, there are many questions to be answered.
Are the people of Ireland North and South well-served by those in government today, those with responsibility for policing and justice?
Is the huge industry created by the policing and justice system meeting the needs of local communities? What are the social and economic benefits of this system for those in deprived and marginalised communities?
How do we ensure that the price for safety and security is not our liberty and rights? In whose interest are these decisions made? And with European directives on some of these areas affecting our laws too, how can we influence such decisions?
Is there justice in the courts? Or is there inherent chauvinism, racism and sectarianism in the administration of justice on this island?
What about those who are imprisoned? Is it right to imprison people seeking asylum? Is it just to keep men and women locked up for 23 hours a day?
Has the more humane regime in jails won by the sacrifice of republican POW’s been replaced by oppressive regimes.
And who polices the Gardai? Why has the police ombudsman in the South not got equal powers to that of the ombudsman in the North?
What lessons have been learned from the McBrearty family and others.
There are questions about the future development of policing and justice on this island which we must consider as a party, and as a society. These questions are not limited to the negotiations for transfer of powers on policing and justice.
This is a critical year in the peace process and political process.
Whatever happens in negotiations, key issues such as policing and justice cannot be put on the shelf to be dusted down when we achieve a united Ireland. People want us to deal with the everyday issues as well as the big picture. Today is about developing an all Ireland vision for justice and policing let us look at this nationally and locally in the big picture and the small picture.
Have a good conference.
Go raibh maith agaibh.