Tommy McKearney argues that better options than accepting PSNI policing in its present form exist for republicans
SPEAKING TO the media on the steps of 10 Downing Street after his September meeting with the Prime Minister, Rev Ian Paisley made it clear that he wanted to make policing the litmus test for Sinn Fein's suitability to participate in the administration of North- ern Ireland.
This particular issue is the latest in a long list of such trials for republicans. There was ceasefire, and then the question of its permanency followed by decommissioning and then mothballing the IRA and thereafter the matter of criminality.
With all these stumbling blocks ad- dressed to the satisfaction of Clapham omnibus commuters - whatever about the DUP - the Free Presbyterian moderator then placed his PSNI card on the table.
Only an incurable optimist could believe that even should Sinn Féin manage to jump through this particular hoop, the DUP would deign to share an executive in Stormont with Gerry Adams and his party colleagues. There remains, after all, the Paisleyite demand to have republicans paraded in sackcloth and ashes and even then the old thunderer would probably find still more hurdles for the "Shinners" to clear.
Sinn Féin's attempted engagement with the DUP now appears similar to the dilemma faced by owners of aging motorcars. Every few weeks the old banger develops another expensive problem and when mended, only postpones the next costly breakdown of a machine that will always cause trouble.
In spite of DUP intransigence and subsequently, the poor prospects for it accepting republicans as executive partners, Sinn Fein is coming under enormous pressure to endorse policing in the north. The demands on the party will be at least two-pronged. In the first instance, London will continue to insist that supporting policing is a reasonable request in light of the new dispensation brought about by Tony Blair and the Good Friday Agreement and a necessity under the terms set out in the St Andrews Agreement. With Dublin concuring, the party's refusal would place a question mark over its suitability for gov- ernment in the Republic.
And as with similar hurdles in the past, government spin-doctors in both jurisdictions will exacerbate the Árd Comhairle's agony by briefing the media that this concession is the last big step needed to break the impasse in the six counties.
Secondly, Sinn Féin party activists are constantly under pressure from their constituents to do something about the type of run-of-the-mill law breaking prevalent in every society. With law and order high in the public eye, they will find it difficult to explain a seeming unwillingness to support legally sanctioned action against miscreants stealing cars, dealing in drugs, assaulting their neighbours, etc.
Yet in spite of this, there is as yet surprisingly little evidence that Sinn Féin has approached this matter with anything resembling an innovative or coherent approach. Part of their difficulty lies in the party's long standing failure to define the state's role in society and therefore, the function of those who enforce laws (the police for one) made by controllers of the state appa- ratus.
This has encouraged the debate to assume an amorphous or at best misleading aura within republican circles. Policing is currently being analysed as if there is simply good, bad and indifferent policing. This is the type of as- sessment that leads to the conclusion that the key to so-called good policing is the calibre of officer recruited, the quality of leadership provided for the force and the degree of supervision in place.
In this very British view of unified policing, no distinction is drawn between operations conducted, for example, to curb drunken driving on one hand and those aimed at smashing secondary, sympathetic industrial action on the other. Under the British model (also practised by the southern Irish authorities) the same force that helps old ladies across busy streets is also tasked to round up suspects for deportation into the hands of notorious human rights violators.
This system can be quite invidious. Refusing to support policing may be interpreted as being soft on crime, while endorsing the process almost always leads to shoring up the state's entire agenda.
Sinn Fein realises that it is faced with a dilemma over policing. Clearly many members, especially in the six counties, retain a traditional reluctance to welcome any move towards accepting policing. If the organisation supports policing, how might the party handle an order from the Parades Commission to permit a march along the Garvaghy Road?
Where would they stand on a royal visit being picketed? What about an order to physically evict demonstra- tors from a visiting US warship? Imagine too, the convulsions experienced in Sinn Fein head office if, in the after- math of a decision to support policing, the Home Secretary were to introduce internment - as John Reid is reported to have considered recently.
Wily old Paisley is undoubtedly aware that the St Andrew's deal will cause problems for Sinn Féin. He can also tell from its public statements that the republican party has no real counter-proposal on offer at the moment.
One suggestion that might offer an option, though, would be to look at the continental system of dividing policing roles and responsibilities. France, Spain and Italy have all faced problems finding acceptable policing and have created different police organisations with different tasks. Some of these organisations are quietly accepted while others remain suspected by constituencies and regions, yet it has allowed for a modus vivendi of sorts.
This may not be an ideal solution but it would allow republicans to address the issue of maintaining acceptable, civil society standards in their constituencies without having to either support the British state or give a blank cheque to its legislation.
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Copyright © 2006 Tommy McKearney