DUP leader Ian Paisley responded to and made comments directed at Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams across the Belfast Assembly chamber this week in what is being seen as a possible shift in his party’s refusal to talk directly to Sinn Féin.
The hardline unionist leader has always refused to hold face-to-face talks with republicans, but the exchanges at the Stormont ‘transitional’ Assembly will be seen as a further easing of the cold war between the two parties.
As talks go on to find a resolution to the current stand-off over the DUP’s refusal to set a date for the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast, hopes are once again growing that a resolution can be found to allow the planned restoration of power-sharing.
In the Assembly on Monday, Dr Paisley engaged in a number of direct exchanges with Mr Adams: once when discussing an arcane point of the Presbyterian involvement in the United Irishmen rebellion of 1798, and a second time when Mr Adams challenged Dr Paisley’s use of the term “IRA/Sinn Féin”.
“Well, perhaps it’s a good omen that they are ashamed of being called IRA men. I hope that will continue,” said Dr Paisley.
At the very end of his speech Dr Paisley also made an indirect, parliamentary-style appeal to Mr Adams to endorse the PSNI police in advance of an agreement on the transfer of policing powers from London.
“I would make a plea to the leader of the party opposite,” he said.
“We are all waiting to hear him say that he is going to support the police and that he is going to abide by the conditions laid down in the [ St Andrews] agreement. The sooner we hear that the better for us all.”
Meanwhile, the police Oversight Commissioner Al Hutchinson, in his latest report, said that more than a quarter of the proposals for policing reform set out in the report of the Patten Commission remain to be implemented, including the transfer of policing powers. The Patten proposals were seen as a minimum level of reform required by Sinn Féin following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Despite some concerns among republicans at Sinn Féin’s decision to participate in debates in an assembly which has been described as a powerless ‘talking shop’, the exchanges on Monday will be seen as a success for the party’s ‘unionist outreach’ program.
However, DUP representatives have insisted the party will not agree a date for the devolution of policing and justice to the Northern Executive - a requirement which is necessary in order to call a Sinn Féin ardfheis on the party’s policing policy.
With Ian Paisley confirming that he has not accepted the position of First Minister-designate, the DUP has moved to ease internal tensions by issuing a further statement to express united support for the party’s negotiating position among its senior figures.
“We should remember that the real enemy is republicans,” said Ian Paisley Jr. “[ DUP members] should beat up on republicans and not beat their chests or beat up on themselves.”
The British government is already coming under pressure from the DUP to postpone the timeline set out in the St Andrews Agreement, including plans to hold an Assembly election as early as next month, as the DUP puts the focus on its demands for Sinn Féin to move.
Mr Adams said that some progress was made in his private talks at Mr Blair’s Chequers retreat last week. Among the issues discussed were plans for the expanded role for British MI5 military intelligence in policing at the expense of the RUC/PSNI’s Special Branch.
And an Assembly sub-committee has been formed to help determine if the standoff between the DUP and Sinn Féin over the devolution of powers issue can be resolved.
The committee will involve contact between two of the DUP and Sinn Féin politicians central to dealing with policing - Gerry Kelly and Ian Paisley jnr, who are the respective policing and justice spokesmen for Sinn Féin and the DUP, and potential ministers in an Executive department of justice.
The six-member sub-committee will meet on Friday and, it is expected, on a regular basis thereafter until January 3rd, when it will report to the Programme for Government committee.
Its other members are Arlene Foster of the DUP, Cathy Stanton of Sinn Féin, Fred Cobain of the Ulster Unionist Party and Alex Attwood of the SDLP.