Sinn Féin has said it is still awaiting a positive response from Ian Paisley’s DUP following its decision to hold a special party conference on supporting the police and recognising the courts in the North of Ireland.
In a New Year statement, the DUP leader responded more coolly than had been anticipated, demanding “quality delivery” of the Sinn Féin concessions before his party moves on the agenda for power-sharing set out in the St Andrews Agreement.
British prime minister Tony Blair has decided to cut short his Miami holiday by a day to try to head off a potential crisis in the peace process.
A Sinn Féin spokesman has confirmed that negotiations with the British government are ongoing. And he also indicated the party was not yet ready to set an exact date for its special Ard Fheis [conference] to consider the controversial policy changes.
The spokesman said: “Last Friday the Sinn Féin Ard chomhairle [leadership committee] backed the proposal by the party president Gerry Adams to call a special Ard Fheis on policing.
“This followed intensive negotiations over the Christmas period when considerable progress was made.
“The Ard Chomhairle agreed that the Ard Fheis would go ahead in January if others, including the two governments (in London and Dublin) and the DUP, responded positively.
“To date there has been no such positive response from the DUP.
“Given the sensitivities of the situation, the Sinn Féin leadership has been in intensive discussions with the British government. Gerry Adams has spoken to Tony Blair several times over recent days including tonight.”
In what was earlier described by the British government as “a seismic shift”, the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle last Friday approved a motion calling for dramatic changes in the party’s policing policy.
Including in the proposed changes are support for the PSNI and the criminal justice system, the appointment of party representatives to the Policing Board and District Policing Partnerships, and the endorsement of the ministerial Pledge of Office.
Under the motion, which is expected to go before the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis by the end of January, republicans will also be asked to co-operate fully with the PSNI and criminal justice institutions.
Gerry Adams said his party supported “fair, impartial and effective delivery of the rule of law”.
“What we don’t support and what we will never allow to happen again is repressive, sectarian and political policing.”
Speaking after the controversial meeting, he said “the achievment of the new beginning to policing promised in the Good Friday Agreement would be an enormous achievement and I believe that we have now reached the point of taking the next step.
“If it succeeds it will advance the struggle for equality and the search for a just and lasting peace on the island of Ireland.”
Speaking subsequently at a commemoration in County Fermanagh on New Year’s Day, Mr Adams compared SInn Féin’s potential decision to accept the PSNI to the raid fifty years ago on a police base in which two republicans died.
“Republicans have never lacked courage,” he said.
“The courage to take up arms like Sean and Feargal in their time, and countless other men and women in our own time. The courage to confront injustice and discrimination. The courage to seize an opportunity for peace. The courage to take risks and at all times to move forward.
“For years we stayed outside policing structures because that was the best way to bring about change. Now we want to move into those structures because that is now the best way to maximise that change.
“Our intention, if the Ard Fheis agrees with the Ard Chomhairle, is to ensure that no police officer ever again does what was done on our people without being held to account.”
He said the move could allow Sinn Féin representatives to ensure that political policing, collusion and the Special Branch ‘force within a force’ were things of the past, and oppose any involvement by MI5/British military intelligence in “civic policing”.
“By building political strength we can build the capacity to move our entire struggle forward,” he declared.
However, the DUP has since demanded “proof” over a “testing period” that Sinn Féin support for the police and courts is genuine.
In his New Year’s message, Ian Paisley welcomed Sinn Féin’s decision to hold the special conference but insisted that a positive decision alone would not be enough, demanding “real, substantive and quality delivery” before responding.
“Unionists stand ready to respond but have been denied opportunity because we must have something of substance to which we can respond,” he said.
Paisley also appeared to warn against hardline or triumphalist statements from fellow unionists which might jeopardise the planned Sinn Féin concessions.
Party colleagues had earlier insisted that Sinn Féin must agree to the dismantling of Provisional IRA structures and the “return” of money stolen in the Northern Bank robbery two years ago before the DUP would accept the latest moves.
“For the first time in our history, republicans are contemplating support for the police and the courts in Northern Ireland. Let not words discourage them,” Mr Paisley said.
Sinn Féin’s move towards an endorsement of policing has also been welcomed by the US government.
A spokesman in Washington said: “This development is an important step forward in protecting the welfare of all the people of Northern Ireland, as well as a step towards achieving full devolution of power in the north.”