How tides have turned

By Brian Feeney (for the Irish News)

So it’s the St Andrews Agreement, another one that has to be endorsed by a referendum or an election, not least to signify that the political scene here is under new ownership.

Remember, the DUP played no part in the Good Friday Agreement and campaigned against it, while Sinn Féin were the late arrivals and junior partners in the 1998 deal.

Of course the bones of this deal are exactly the same as the Good Friday Agreement but the meat of it is a reworking of the aborted comprehensive agreement of December 2004.

A lot could still go wrong between now and the full operation of the St Andrews Agreement on March 26 next.

Nevertheless, there is no alternative to such a long run-in.

First, the DUP’s grass roots have to be reconciled to Paisley’s u-turn on sharing power and secondly, once achieved, that reconciliation has to be fire-proofed by an election, probably on March 7, formerly the feast of St Thomas Aquinas, with the assembly meeting the next week to nominate the executive.

Once the British legislation republicans negotiated gets the royal assent in November, Sinn Féin’s endorsement of policing will be child’s play compared to the potential turmoil on the wilder shores of unionism where people voted for Paisley in the certainty that he would say ‘No’.

No wonder the agreement has pencilled in 18 months to work towards the devolution of policing and security because therein lies the core of the seismic change that the St Andrews Agreement will bring about in the north.

Since partition in 1921 unionists have believed that ownership and control of a paramilitary police force was essential to their security. The police were the mailed fist of unionism.

Now, in an unimaginable reversal, under the terms of the St Andrews Agreement, political supervision of policing, though not operational control, will be in the hands of Sinn Féin.

This fundamental reversal is vital for a two-fold reason.

First, republicans must be assured that never again will political policing be used to harass, intimidate and victimise the nationalist community.

Second, and equally important, unionists must be assured that republicans’ support for policing in the north is the best guarantee there can possibly be of unionist security.

Of course, unionists must be fully involved in the political oversight of policing and justice, and the detailed terms of that joint management between republicans and unionists have still to be agreed, perhaps two equal ministers or a full minister with a junior minister.

No matter: it is the principle that is important for the security and peace of mind of both republicans and unionists.

If this agreement sticks, and there’s many a slip betwixt cup and lip, the devolution of policing and justice will be its touchstone because that will signal a degree of trust between the two communities which has never existed and could not exist since partition while one community insisted on owning the police force.

Sharing control of security is real power-sharing.

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© 2006 Irish Republican News