A week of intense talks involving Sinn Féin, Ian Paisley’s DUP and the Dublin and London governments to find a way through the impasse over policing before the Christmas break continues unabated.
Although the process appeared to have collapsed following statements yesterday from Nigel Dodds and other DUP hardliners, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness confirmed that “progress is being made and work will continue today [Saturday]”.
While the DUP is still refusing to engage directly with Sinn Féin, neither side appears ready to abandon the process ahead of the Christmas break.
There was no confirmation of speculation in the media that Sinn Féin party officers are canvassing internal support for a meeting of the party’s leadership [Ard Chomhairle]. This would consider holding the highly controversial special conference which would debate a change in party policy to support the PSNI police.
In order to fit a tight timetable for an election to the Belfast Assembly and the return of power-sharing by the governments’ March 26th target date, a Sinn Féin party conference [Ard Fheis] would need to be held by the end of January.
Intense opposition from grassroots republicans has been predicted to any leadership motion to endorse the PSNI police and [British] rule of law in the North of Ireland. The change in policy is required under the terms of the recently negotiated St Andrews Agreement, which remains the blueprint for the implementation of the central elements of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The talks in Belfast are currently focussed on securing a date for the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. It is understood that such a timetable would allow the Sinn Féin leadership to argue that policing and justice in the North of Ireland was entering a transitional phase and would be increasingly independent of British control.
It was revealed that several times yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair got involved by telephone in a detailed way with the main negotiators. Meanwhile, the nationalist SDLP all but abandoned hope for the talks, claiming the DUP and Sinn Féin were merely trying to shift the blame for the impasse.
Scepticism has also been mounting among grassroots republicans over the direction of the talks following a series of public and private statements by DUP figures in which they declared their only intention in the current negotiations is to defeat republicanism.
Confidence was further dented by the comments of DUP’s Nigel Dodds, who yesterday ruled out any timetable for the transfer of policing and justice which he said would be “some kind of comfort to Sinn Féin”.
The May 2008 target date mentioned by British Direct Ruler Peter Hain for the devolution of these powers carried no weight, he said, nor would any private deals on the issue between the British government and Sinn Féin.
The final decision on when the powers would be transferred from London rested with the DUP, he said.
“It has never been agreed by the DUP nor will it be. So Hain’s comments on this issue amount to hot air.
“Hain may be attempting to bring some kind of comfort to Sinn Féin, but he speaks only for the Government and on this issue the Government cannot deliver.
“The DUP has made it clear repeatedly that there will be no timetable for devolution of policing and justice agreed by us.
“Such a timetable is a republican demand only. No other party ever made this a precondition for doing the right thing on policing and justice.”
Fellow DUP MP Willie McCrea claimed that republicans had come up against a “wall of resistance” from his party in the talks.
The South Antrim MP said: “Let Sinn Féin/IRA crawl if they want, but we are not moving one inch on our determination to resist any ploy of Government to get republicans off the hook.
“I now am aware that the mighty Adams and McGuinness are so anxious to get over this present difficulty that they are willing to soften their demand to government, hoping they’re gullible republican activists will not catch on.
“However we must be alert to the ploy of the Government and the Sinn Féin/IRA leadership and prove that for unionists there is a line drawn in the sand.”
Sinn Féin Chief Negotiator Martin McGuinness described the comments as “deliberately provocative” and “a cause of concern to nationalists and republicans”.
He said that “key to moving forward is a commitment from the DUP to sharing power on the basis of equality with republicans”.