By Tommy McKearney (for Fourthwrite)
Those with experience of Sinn Féin manoeuvring will have recognised recent signs that a policy change is in the air. Look at what has been taking place. GAA stars have been playing football with the PSNI and never a word of rebuke from the Ard Comhairle. Gerry Kelly dropping hints in a Belfast Telegraph interview about the closing gap between his position and that of the British government on acceptable policing. Gerry Adams telling a Yankee audience how much he wants to be able to support the police in the 6 Counties. Have no doubt about it, the party wishes to endorse policing in the north of Ireland and is in the process of persuading its loyal and docile support base that this is something that they too should aspire to.
In the short term there is little doubt but that the Sinn Féin leadership will be able to carry the day at a special delegate convention and win approval for policing in the north. Before long the party will be nominating representatives to sit on local district policing boards and its elected representatives will be repeating the same old mantra as other Establishment politicians about the need to support law and order and asking all to give whatever help they can to the constabulary.
There will be a certain amount of token resistance from the older Provo wing. There remains, after all, a small incorrigible group of old war horses who still cling to the notion that the only good copper is a well shot through one. These folk, however, are now an aging anachronism with fast diminishing influence in the movement. The skilled ‘party-handlers’ who have extensive experience of placating irritated but politically limited Provos will easily deal with any objections.
Difficulties will set in, though, as the process develops. The party faithful will have been told that accepting the PSNI will put enormous pressure on the DUP to do business with Sinn Féin. This will be one of the early disappointments as there is little likelihood that this generation of republicans will ever find favour with the Paisleyites. In reality, the DUP would find itself in real danger of losing its core support if it were to do a deal with those they deem guilty of prosecuting the physical force campaign of the past thirty years.
In short time too, fond hopes of making policing accountable to Sinn Féin representatives will quickly prove an illusion. For so long as the Six County state is part of the United Kingdom, London will ensure that it exercises control over any and every armed body within its territory. Moreover, the notion that Sinn Féin might see its representative made responsible for justice and policing in the North is sheer fantasy. It will prove nigh on impossible to persuade the DUP to share power with the Gerry Adams generation of republicans under even the best of circumstances. To envisage them participating in an executive with a Sinn Féiner in charge of, or contributing to guiding the police is stretching credulity to the point of believing in leprechauns.
Sinn Féin will, in the short run, contrive to execute what a few short years ago would have been an impossible feat and bring the party around to endorsing policing in the North. It will seem at first as if a minor miracle has been performed with police and Provos cooperating on a wide range of issues in order to bolster ‘law and order’.
The problem will be that in the medium term, social and economic conditions in Ireland, north or south, will not dramatically change for those on the lower rung of the ladder. No amount of smoke and mirrors will alter the fact that the neo-liberal agenda remains in place and a socialist republic is not in view. Those people most likely to vote Sinn Féin at present will not see any improvement in their lives in the tough world of free market capitalism. They will begin to notice, though, that the party, which once appeared as marginalised and as isolated as they were has become virtually indistinguishable from the others in parliament.
This will surely come to pose a problem for Sinn Féin. Michael Harrington, the American sociologist and writer once said that for the urban poor; “...the police are the people who arrest you.” There was a time when Sinn Féin and its supporters would have found themselves in accord with this view. With endorsement of the law enforcement agencies north and south, the party will gradually lose this distinction and grow less relevant and attractive to the most marginalised and deprived.
This will happen, of course, for a very simple reason. The law that these agencies are obliged to enforce is not designed to help the poor. Neo-liberal, free-market economics by their very nature leave losers in their wake. Competition, which is the engine of the system, must by definition lead to a situation where some fall behind in the race for prosperity. In their bewilderment and anger and frustration at being excluded from the affluent society all around them, many will inevitably fall foul of the law more often than other sections of society.
It is doubtful whether Sinn Féin support will remain as solid as it used to in areas of high deprivation, especially in the Republic, as the party grows closer to the Establishment. To a certain extent it was this factor - being outside the cosy coterie - that allowed the party brand itself as anti-establishment in many of the constituencies where Sinn Féin now has elected representatives. If this base is eroded, the question may be asked whether the move towards ‘respectability’ will bring a compensatory increase in support among other sections of society. Theoretically, this may be possible but with little to distinguish them from other left-of-centre candidates the party will find it difficult to increase its share seats above ten or eleven and will find it difficult thereafter to maintain that number.
The party would once again find itself confined largely to the north and that will not achieve its long stated objectives. Seats on policing boards will come at a high price.