Taking the Plunge on Policing
Taking the Plunge on Policing
Sean Mac Conmara looks at the progress of peace process negotiations on policing over the last three years.


There was a general air of optimism for further progress to cement a deal on power sharing that followed from the Hillsborough Castle talks at the beginning of March 2003 (although talks of sanctions and the creation of a four man monitoring body, later to become the IMC, was to create problems) and at last an acceptable solution to the policing nightmare looked promising.

Speaking during an interview in Washington for the BBC’s Hearts and Minds programme on 13th March 2003, PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde agreed with interviewer Noel McAdam that there was great expectation that Sinn Féin were close to “coming on board the Policing Board”, although he added a caveat. Mr Orde warned that this prospect would be very challenging for his officers. “It will be challenging times. I don’t underestimate it”, he said, adding: “not everyone thinks this is a good idea”. Speaking about the morale of the PSNI at that stage, Mr Orde said: “I think some groups are less enthusiastic than others”.

Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams, addressing the party’s Ard Fheis in Dublin on 29th March 2003, said: “Let me state clearly that no decision to support the current policing proposition has been considered by the outgoing Ard Chomhairle. Such a decision will only be taken by a specially convened Ard Fheis. And we are not yet in a position to contemplate convening this.

“If we do so, it is my intention that a position paper would go to all levels of the party for discussion - that is the party membership as a whole, and that there would be a comprehensive debate leading up to the special Ard Fheis.

“So, consequently, if I am asked can I see a time when it would be appropriate for Sinn Féin to join the Policing Board and participate fully in the policing arrangements on a democratic basis, the answer is yes. Are we at that point now? The answer is no, not yet. We may know at the end of the current negotiations. And let me tell you that there has been substantive movement or commitments to movement on key issues by the British government.”

The following day, 30th March 2003, Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness addressed the Ard Fheis.

Mr McGuinness said: “ ... even before the Hillsborough talks, we had made significant progress, particularly on policing and justice issues”, adding: “We have made steady progress ... building on the advances made in Weston Park 18 months ago”.

On the issue of democratic accountability, he said: “We have, in our most recent discussions, secured commitments to new legislation. That is, in addition to the raft of legislative amendments we secured at Weston Park ...”.

Mr McGuinness went on to highlight additional powers secured for the Police Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission, as well as a change in the Codes of Practice and more power for Belfast sub-groups. He spoke of additional and reinforcing aspects of accountability, demilitarisation, defortification, the objective of an unarmed police service and the accelerated process to bring about these changes.

Importantly, Mr McGuinness said that he hoped to see early movement on the future role of the Special Branch. “We have made it clear that the Special Branch abuses which took place under the cover of the Walker procedures and the force within a force, created and perpetuated by lengthy or indefinite tenure of Special Branch positions, can be no part of a new beginning to policing.

“The British government has also agreed in principle to the transfer of power on policing and justice from the British government to the Assembly and the all-Ireland Ministerial Council. What we are seeking now is that this is firmed up in terms of specific proposals and a defined time frame,” he said.

Elections were due and things were finally looking up. Though not for long.

The issues of sanctions and IRA decommissioning created major problems. Sinn Féin insisted a deal was still possible if the two governments came up with a package of proposals. They didn’t.

Just days before the 17th April publication of the third Stevens report into the murder of Pat Finucane, it was reported that former FRU agent Brian Nelson had died.

The planned elections were postponed on 1st May.

On Sunday 11th May, the Stakeknife story hit the headlines.

Just as progress on policing was looking likely.

Last Saturday (14th January 2006), Sinn Féin spokesperson on policing and justice, Gerry Kelly, announcing the party’s ‘All-Ireland Vision for Policing and Justice’ said Sinn Féin is “committed to achieving and being part of the new policing dispensation. No half measures or three quarter measures will do”.

Mr Kelly said that in December 2004 there was an agreement “on a sequence of events including the transfer of powers on policing and justice from London to Belfast”. (That agreement fell apart when the DUP infamously reneged at the last moment.)

Mr Kelly continued: “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 Féin’s position on new policing arrangements.

“That situation has not changed. It is not Sinn Féin but others who are delaying progress.”

Mr Kelly spoke of the problems of political policing: “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 Féin elected representatives are kept in the PSNI’s Castlereagh barracks; the fact that these files had been passed on to unionist paramilitaries; politically motivated housemaids 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 Féin 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 Féin 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,” he said.

In recent years, those who’s actions and crimes were most at risk of being exposed by the accountability that would follow on from all-inclusive policing arrangements were, and are to this day, absolutely determined to prevent, at any cost, Sinn Féin taking their seats on the policing board.

They have, they are, and they will continue to create mischief and use black propaganda against republicans to maintain the status quo. No doubt, another ‘scandal’ is there waiting in the wings to be presented to the media as and when they dictate.

For this strategy to continue to be successful in preventing real change, these sinister elements are wholly reliant on the nationalist and republican community’s pessimism when it comes to believing that real change to policing is actually achievable.

Despite this, Sinn Féin has within its possession the antidote to finally rid society in the six counties of these people and the poison that is the make-up of the current policing arrangements. This antidote is their electorate’s belief in them and trust in their judgement.

For Sinn Féin to be able to move on policing, the British government needs to face up to its responsibility for creating the right political atmosphere. It has to finally rein in, take control of, and make accountable those who’s primary agenda is to prevent political progress. It will be interesting to see the details of the new legislation that the British government is to introduce next month.

If the British government finally does face up to its responsibilities and next month’s new legislation is positive - taking into account the gains already made by Sinn Féin in negotiations and the agreements reached for further change - serious, pragmatic consideration should be given to taking the plunge and endorsing policing sooner rather than later.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News