The decision last Monday by Sinn Féin’s ard chomhairle to issue a qualified Yes to the St Andrews proposals is entirely understandable. Indeed the response could well be described as surprisingly positive given the issues being negotiated and debated by republicans and the unpredictable juncture thus far reached - three weeks after the publication of the St. Andrews proposals.
The party’s cautious but positive response reflects the reality that many of the core issues which lie at the heart of the St Andrews proposals remain unresolved to the satisfaction of the Sinn Féin membership and wider
The measured but nonetheless significant attitude expressed in the Sinn Féin statement has also been shaped by the fact that the party’s negotiators are still locked into and have been locked into a daily, sometimes hourly, battle with the British and Irish governments over matters which, if got right, will shape politics on this island for quite some time to come.
Behind the scenes and not reflected in the Sinn Féin statement lies an intense power struggle with those in the British and unionist political and military system who until the beginning of the peace process comfortably held all power in
These are the people who prosecuted the war against the Catholic, nationalist and republican people; who presided over and used their political and military might to defend partition and the one party unionist state; who ensured for decades that Catholics and nationalists would live in their own country as second-class citizens, reside beyond the realm of influence; denied access to institutions of power which governed their lives.
The negotiation around the St Andrews proposals is one of the most crucial to date.
Republicans have to emerge from this phase of negotiations with the maximum amount of change for those who support the peace process.
That change has to be capable of propelling the peace process forward at an accelerated pace.
It also has to have the capacity to place the peace process beyond the wrecking grasp of the British and unionist securocrats.
For this to happen power must be wrested from those in control in the ‘Northern Ireland Office’.
That is what this negotiation is trying to do.
There are two key paragraphs in Monday’s Sinn Féin statement which provide an appreciation of where the situation sits.
The statement makes it clear that the leadership of Sinn Féin believes “the process set out at St Andrews has the potential to deliver the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and to bring about the restoration of the powersharing and all-Ireland political institutions.”
That means there is in waiting an all-Ireland framework comprising an all-Ireland ministerial council, a northern executive and assembly. These institutions when working will regularly bring together in agreement and under one roof the Irish government, the DUP, Sinn Féin, the UUP and the SDLP. A tall order but what a breakthrough for all the people of this country were it to come to pass.
Alongside that important paragraph sits another equally important, “Issues to be agreed include a time frame for the transfer of powers and a model for the Department of Justice and Policing. Sinn Féin is committed to bring an end to decades of repressive and sectarian policing. We reject any role for MI5 in Ireland and in civic policing.”
Patten’s recommendations promised a new beginning to policing. We are on the cusp of that new beginning because republicans for the first time ever are giving serious consideration to endorsing new policing arrangements should they emerge from these negotiations.
That in itself would be a development of enormous significance.
The wider context, if it is achieved, could be even more profound in its implications.
A DUP led by the Rev Ian Paisley agreeing to share power with Irish republicans, to sit on an all-Ireland ministerial council and to be part of arrangements which have at their core the principles of equality, justice and human rights.
If the DUP come into these arrangements it will be a final acknowledgement by this most recalcitrant unionist constituency that the days of domination, inequality and discrimination are gone for ever.
That would indeed be an historic development.