By Jim Gibney (for Irish News)
In an act of solidarity with the people of Stoneyford, particularly the beleaguered Catholics of the village, Sinn Féin’s Lagan Valley MLA, Paul Butler and I made statements to the PSNI against a group of loyalists on Tuesday March 11.
Some of these loyalists are believed to be behind the sectarian campaign of intimidation which has led to eight Catholic families being evicted from their Stoneyford homes.
Recently, a number of loyalists, including Mark Harbison, who are well-known to the Catholics of the village and the PSNI, have been arrested. Harbinson was arrested as a result of a statement made by the Sinn Féin MLA .
The statements we made arose out of an incident in Stoneyford when a number of loyalists tried to frighten us out of the village while the Lagan Valley MLA was being interviewed for the BBC’s Spotlight programme.
He was being interviewed in the car park of the Stonyford Inn. The inn was once owned by a Catholic family but now lies in ruins having been attacked up to 80 times by loyalists.
The Spotlight team is doing a special investigation into the loyalist campaign against the Catholics of the village and the PSNI’s policing of these loyalists.
Our act of solidarity with Stoneyford’s Catholics was not just a gesture towards them it was also a gesture to the PSNI. Given our individual republican history it was not easy to make that commitment.
It was not easy to cross the line, to move beyond the general call by republicans to support the PSNI to the personal act of siding with them in a joint effort to protect the Catholics of Stoneyford from loyalists.
In the interview room, while making my statement to the PSNI officer, I deliberately sat on the same side of the table as he did. The space opposite us, on the other side of the table, I had occupied many times, while being interrogated by RUC personnel.
As I sat in the interview room, as a visitor not a suspect, I pondered on those experiences and thought how far we had travelled to the seat I now occupied on this side of the table.
Earlier that day I watched the Assembly debate a report on the transfer of policing and justice powers to the north’s Executive.
Reflecting on the debate it struck me that the unionist parties were trying, symbolically speaking, to deprive the nationalist and republican community of the opportunity to sit on the same side of the table with PSNI officers as I had.
Unionist opposition to the transfer of policing and justice powers was about keeping nationalists on the side of the table reserved for those being interrogated by the PSNI.
In other words unionists are trying to perpetuate the old hostile relationship between nationalists and the police, a relationship which suits their attempts to prevent nationalists and unionists sharing this last arena of power.
The debate also reflected the current nervousness inside the DUP as it comes to terms with the political implications of changing its leader and the threat it perceives from Jim Allister’s party as a result of his party’s performance in the Dromore by-election.
The ‘confident unionism’ which the DUP said it was offering the unionist people is showing signs of stress and is in retreat on the issue of transferring policing and justice powers to the Executive.
However, opposition comments from unionist parties had a hollow ring to them given their participation in the all-Ireland ministerial council, executive and assembly since May of last year.
This participation was reflected in the actual report which was being debated in the chamber - a report which had the agreement of all the Executive parties on practically all issues except the date on which police and justice powers would be transferred.
Confident unionism may be in retreat but it is a matter of when, not if, police and justice powers will be transferred as it was with the setting up of the institutions.