Sinn Féin acknowledges that the PSNI as a policing agency will not weaken republicanism, so long as its agenda for change is not compromised, writes Féilim Ó hAdhmaill
THE CURRENT debate around whether the DUP will jump into power-sharing with republicans has interested political commentators, not just because of the ramifications this may have for unionism but also because of the potential ramifications for republicans vis-a-vis policing.
There is no doubt most republicans would like to see some form of 'policing' in their areas. Republicans have never opposed 'policing'. Didn't they make their own crude attempts at it in the past? Few want to go back to beatings and shootings of young people as a remedy for the social ills of society. Republicans may have been able to justify that to themselves in time of war, but certainly not in time of peace.
Currently, the string of community watch groups, safer neighbourhood projects, youth projects and community restorative justice projects, are all testament to republican attempts to promote safety and security for local residents in their areas, plagued by anti-social behaviour.
Such projects recognise the social, economic and cultural context in which crime takes place and should be part of any arrangements to address such behaviour, in the future, however, other sanctions and forms of protection remain important particularly when issues of serious harm are concerned - rape, violent attacks, child abuse, the hard drugs trade, etc.
The issue for republicans is not whether 'policing' but what type and whether current policing arrangements - even if enhanced by the changes sought by Sinn Féin in negotiations - are sufficient to attract 'support' from republicans and their communities?
One view is that republicans could not accept any reformed policing arrangements three reasons. Firstly, the police are the tools of elites in a capitalist society, secondly policing per say will not solve problems caused by the socio-economic circumstances in our society, and thirdly, Britain may use the police to suppress legitimate political dissent.
Whilst it is easy to agree with these points - that anti-social behaviour can not be addressed solely by policing, that in any society the police will ultimately be the protectors of that system and potentially the instruments of the ruling elites, and that ultimately the police can be used to suppress political activity - the more important question is how do we change this?
How do we create a society which is not exploitative of the poor and weak? How do we deal with anti-social behaviour in its broadest context? And how do we end British political control in the north?
Currently there appears to be only one republican strategy on the table with any serious potential and despite its flaws it needs to be seriously considered. The strategy promoted by Sinn Féin argues that the way forward is to build political strength for republicanism while inching forward in terms of societal change. The trick of course is to remain true to republican ideas and policies in the process (rather than becoming another new Labour or Fianna Fail). Making republicanism popular to non-republicans is fine as long as republicans are not becoming non-republicans in the process.
Sinn Féin's strategy has involved negotiations aimed at gaining the optimum conditions in which to work to build political strength, and opening up a number of political sites of struggle to advance republicanism.
In terms of negotiations it is probably fair to say that Sinn Fein negotiators have punched way above their weight in this arena. They do after all represent a minority perspective in the negotiations. No matter how good they are they are not in the room by themselves.
Thus, no republican is likely to regard the Good Friday agreement as a republican document, or current political arrangements are representing a republican settlement.
Maybe the best way to describe the situation is that republicans are negotiating frameworks in which they can potentially advance their agenda - to build political strength and ensure that sufficient change occurs to weaken the basis of unionism and the old order forever.
The question then is can republicans increase political strength and advance this agenda by 'accepting' the PSNI operating within the frameworks of accountability currently laid down?
Clearly 'support' for current 'policing' presents problems for republicans. The Chief Constable will retain operational control at central level and although having to report to representatives of the people (and republicans are still in a minority here) will ultimately be responsible to the secretary of state, especially when it comes to matters of 'national' (British) security. M15 will of course do their own thing.
More importantly though, at ground level, the PSNI will remain an anti-republican armed militia patrolling republican areas with a legitimacy the RUC never achieved when republicanism was far weaker politically. The culture of the PSNI will remain solidly unionist (whether Catholic or Protestant) and its interests will be linked to unionism and the British state. How can meetings with district commanders and the Chief Constable positively influence that?
One wonders how republicans could be expected to 'support' a policing service without a whole list of further reforms. Should such a service not be representative of all sectors of society, including republican activists (and ex-prisoners) when suitably trained.
Why shouldn't the south Armagh commander of the PSNI, for example, be a republican or at least someone who can empathize with a republican perspective? Why should people in west Belfast have a police service populated by people from Newtownards or Bangor who know nothing and care less about that community's needs - and armed into the bargain?
The policing question cannot be taken in isolation. It is possible that the whole agreement - assembly, executive, cross border bodies, human rights and equality agendas - may be dependent on republican 'acceptance' of the PSNI.
Besides this, there are other issues. The continuation of peace, the promotion of trust and national reconciliation, the dynamics within unionism, the position of the Irish government, the international climate, all have to be taken into consideration. Clearly all of these areas have the potential, as sites of struggle, to develop republican political strength or greatly diminish it depending on decisions taken.
Whether that political strength will weaken in the months ahead depends on what is demanded of republicans. If they are being asked to accept that the PSNI are the policing agency of the state and that people should be free to join them or to contact them, it may seem to many that, de facto, that is not a million miles from the current situation in the north.
However, there is a difference in accepting that something exists (as in the case of capitalism) and politically supporting its existence.
Whatever is being demanded of republicans they need to be able to retain their critical political perspective on policing and the space to promote that political perspective. Just because republicans may agree to operate within a particular framework of law (and order) this should not emasculate republican politics.
Republicans should be able to remain republican and should be confident enough to state their problems with the current PSNI and campaign for change.
Surely, for example, it is a human rights issue (it's certainly a political issue) when republican activists cannot join the 'policing service'. Likewise republicans should continue to argue for reform of the PSNI along the lines of its role in society and limited role in dealing with 'crime', its composition and whose agenda it serves.
Whatever decision republicans come to in relation to policing the important thing is the decision is based on a rational republican perspective, not on emotion; on realistic rather than unrealistic notions of the political potential of such decisions.
It is also important to recognise that it is sometimes easy to sit back and criticise when others are taking the struggle to the belly of the beast, metaphorically speaking. The courage, skill and commitment of republican negotiators, must be acknowledged. The reality of current republican political strength must also be acknowledged. Any decision also needs to be rationale and respect the objective conditions in which we live.
The above article was written in the run up to Sinn Fein's extraordinary Ard Fheis held in Dublin on 28 January.
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Copyright © 2007 Feilim Ó hAhmaill