A crisis is mounting as a result of the continuing failure of the DUP to respond positively to the decision by the Sinn Féin leadership to recognise the courts and support the police force in the North of Ireland.
After returning early from his Christmas break in Miami, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was his assessment that if Sinn Féin delivered on policing, the DUP would accept devolution of justice powers by May 2008.
In his response, DUP leader Ian Paisley “welcomed” the assessment, and the British government’s Northern Ireland Office interpreted this as acceptance. Efforts by Sinn Féin to garner more positive langauge from Mr Paisley over the weekend proved fruitless.
Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness said yesterday it was now “pointless” to pretend the DUP had agreed to share power by March 26th or to the timetable for the transfer of powers on policing by May 2008 “when they clearly have not”.
Further clarity emerged today when Mr Paisley, responding to an article by the British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said he was “amazed” at Blair’s assessment.
Mr Blair wrote: “My assessment from the detailed conversations I have had with the DUP is that, provided there is delivery of the Sinn Féin commitment, they will enter into government with Sinn Féin on March 26th and they will accept devolution of policing and justice powers in the timeframe set out in the St Andrews agreement or even before that date.
“Personally, I think any other outcome would be wrong, unfair to all sections of the community in Northern Ireland and a complete waste of a one-off, once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a lasting peace.”
However, Mr Paisley has accused Mr Blair of misrepresenting his party’s policy in the article.
“I do not agree with the statement of the Prime Minister when he claims that we, the DUP, agreed there could be devolution of policing and justice within a certain time limit,” he said.
“Sinn Féin have said there was a date... this is a completely untrue statement.
“I would ask the Prime Minister to say when this meeting takes place, who asked the question. There is a triple lock in place, when policing is devolved it goes back to the First Minister.
Mr Paisley concluded: “I can’t agree with the Prime Minister unless we believe it is the truth.”
The contradiction has badly undermined confidence in the negotiations over the Christmas period, which led Gerry Adams to make a move described as “seismic” by British Direct Ruler Peter Hain.
While Sinn Féin has adhered to the timetable for the return of power-sharing set out in the “St Andrews Agreement” presented by the Dublin and London governments in October, the DUP has continued to cast doubt over political progress by raising the bar with new “tests” for Sinn Féin.
Grassroots Sinn Féin supporters have grown increasingly restive as dramatic concessions by the Sinn Féin leadership have continued to be rebuffed. However, the move to accept the PSNI police and British court system has proven too much for many republicans, crystallising significant opposition to the current strategy.
The Adams/McGuinness leadership is understood to be reconsidering its decision to hold a special party conference [Ard Fheis] by the end of the month to formalise the policy changes.
The process has not been helped by the latest statements by the DUP, including demands by party MP Gregory Campbell that Sinn Féin turn in former members of the IRA in order to prove it has changed.
Mr Campbell said that Sinn Féin must work with the police to stamp out republican “criminality”.
When asked if he would call on Sinn Féin to report former IRA comrades to the police, he replied: “That will be a part of our test for them after the Ard Fheis, we have a series of things to put into practice to test them to see if their support for policing means anything.
“They can’t turn a blind eye on criminals because they are former colleagues,” he said.
Mr Campbell said that Sinn Féin must satisfy various tests, such as handing over republicans involved in the bar-room stabbing of Belfast man Robert McCartney in January 2005.
BLAIR PRAISES ADAMS
However, Tony Blair today hailed the Sinn Féin leadership, and urged the DUP to believe its good faith.
“Sinn Féin has demonstrated one of the most remarkable examples of leadership I have come across in modern politics,” he wrote. “It has been historic and it has been real.
“For republicans, whose experience of policing has been bitter and, in their eyes, deeply partisan, and who have spent a lifetime fighting it, a move to support the PSNI and the criminal justice system is a move of profound significance.”
Mr Adams cautiously welcomed Blair’s latest intervention.
“He is giving the DUP yet another chance. I think they need the little bit of space required to respond in a positive way to what has been outlined. There big issues to be faced here. Sinn Féin comes at this positively. All these matters have to be sorted out and resolved.”
Asked what was needed from the DUP, Mr Adams said earlier today that Mr Paisley had to welcome and agree with Mr Blair’s assessment.
“There are so many discordant voices coming out of the DUP at this time and republicans are listening to the very loud and negative and some times quite hysterical voices from that party.”
Speaking before Mr Paisley’s response today, Mr Adams said “this isn’t about putting it up to Ian Paisley or to any of the DUP. There is a collective process involved here and let’s all try to do our best to resolve all of these matters.
Mr Adams said they were clearly difficulties on the unionist side.
“We need to look at that in a benign way even though many republicans are very angry at the behaviour and the noises coming out of the DUP.
“Let’s do our best and let’s look ahead as we try to plot out the next few days.”
Meanwhile, 26-County Taoiseach Bertie Mr Ahern, who admitted that he has had no recent contact with Mr Paisley, also called on the DUP leader to “speak clearly” and make it abundantly clear that he has “no more problems about moving to power-sharing”.
Mr Ahern also confirmed he is also not speaking to Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams -- a fact that was the subject of sharp criticism yesterday from Sinn Féin chief negotiator Martin McGuinness.
Speaking in Limerick, Mr McGuinness said Mr Ahern had only spoken to Mr Adams “once in the last couple of months”. This conversation came about, he said, only after he had complained directly to a Dublin official.
Mr Ahern acknowledged the efforts that were being made by Mr Adams and Mr McGuinness to persuade Sinn Féin members of the need to support the police and courts, but also to maintain a united organisation.
“It is a time for steady leadership. For Sinn Féin it is very difficult what they are trying to do. It is the right thing to do.”