By Anthony McIntyre
When Sinn Féin decided to abandon its long standing opposition to British policing in the North and give its support to the PSNI, the party claimed that political policing if not already a thing of the past would soon be consigned to the history books. Even the dumbest, whatever their political abode, must now see the paucity of that claim.
Already in some spheres political policing has made its presence felt more intensely than at any point during the days when the PSNI went under the name RUC. The PSNI now has powers of 28 day detention, 4 times as long as it had in its RUC guise. Today in the Irish News it is reported that ‘a purpose built “supergrass” unit is to be constructed inside Maghaberry Prison.’
Over the decades when people detained in British police holding centres were having their human rights abused Sinn Féin could routinely be found protesting outside those centres. The same when the supergrass system was in full flow; Sinn Féin would campaign on the grounds that the system relied on the word of “paid perjurers.” Now because of the bind the party is in, issuing public statements or promising to take it up with their colleagues in the British government is as far as it feels able to go. Protests are too much in your face and in any event would only beg the question of how Sinn Féin ever ended up supporting a police force that can now hold people in its custody for longer than any other force in the democratic world and then use the most tainted evidence available to convict them - that of alleged accomplices.
With Pastor Martin Niemoeller’s words echoing from a distant past ringing in our minds the party may yet face the embarrassment of some of its own people, guilty or not, being held for 28 days before being jailed on the evidence of a “supergrass” if the PSNI decide to pursue the Northern Bank robbery investigation. There is absolutely nothing to stop them. Because Sinn Féin said nothing when it happened to others, there might be no one left to say anything when it happens to them.
Many Sinn Féin members underwent interrogation during the Provisional IRA’s own participation in the conflict. Some of them also spent considerable time in prison as the result of “paid perjurer” evidence. It must seem strange to those in the party who have still, in administrative terms at least, not yet gone over to the British body and soul to view the prolonged interrogations that are taken place in Antrim Barracks and the construction of the new Maghaberry unit. Those that did, many years back, sit silent facing down their interrogators must today have a natural sympathy with those in custody and an equally natural antipathy towards the police interrogators. Yet they must publicly stand in solidarity with the raucous police not the silent detainee, limply arguing for detention periods to be pulled back to the old British span of 7 days rather than the current 28. It is hardly a radical position for a party that claims to have achieved major progress in the area of policing to be arguing. Yet it is the logic of where the party finds itself. It is where the DUP has forced them to go.
At the same time there has not been the slightest reciprocation from the DUP. Not one eyebrow raised about police procedure; the opposite is true. Human Rights commissioner Monica McWilliams was condemned by DUP members for visiting the interrogation centre to check on the human rights status of the detained. It shows the power disparity in what is inanely described as a power-sharing arrangement.
The extent of the problem is rapidly becoming clear. The British state is increasing its erosion of civil liberties for Irish citizens. As has been said of Argentina, while the state has formally rejected terror it has preserved its tools. Moreover, whereas previously it was faced by an opposition that defined itself as the voice of principled leadership, it no longer has that restraining mechanism breathing down its neck. Sinn Féin may, as it has done in the case of 28 day detention, raise a feeble voice against the use of paid perjurers. But the British will relax certain in the knowledge that the party has no choice but to support those who pay the perjurers.