SF constitutional transformation complete

Sinn Féin ard fheis (conference) on January 28 voted to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the criminal justice system; appoint party representatives to the policing board and district policing partnership boards; and actively encourage everyone in the community to cooperate fully with the police services and criminal justice institutions in tackling crime in all areas. In November 2006, the party had already signed up to the 26-counties policing committees. Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams insisted that "Republicans have always been for policing. Republicans have always been for law and order."

The decision was hardly surprising. In a recent editorial the Irish News noted: "If Sinn Féin is to complete its transition from a revolutionary group to a constitutional party which seeks to achieve positions in government on both sides of the border, support for policing has always been essential." The Provos had to end what Democratic Unionist Party MEP Jim Allister has called their "schizophrenic approach to the rule of law".

The contradiction revolves around the fact that, while the party was prepared to administer British rule, it refused to accept British policing structures in the north. Sinn Féin wanted ministers making the laws, while refusing to endorse the forces in charge of implementing them. In the words of Paul Maguire, "This was an absurd and illogical political position. One either rejects the legitimacy of a state or accepts it. One cannot reject the legitimacy of one arm of the state and accept the legitimacy of another. Sinn Féin was trying to have its cake and eat it." The 1998 Belfast agreement made it quite clear that signatories would have to accept new internal policing arrangements. The Provisional movement had to accept the state's monopoly of legitimate violence.

Some weeks back, Tony Blair stated that a move to support the police, given that republicans "have spent a lifetime fighting it", would be of "profound significance": "There is no doubt that the Sinn Féin leadership wants to make the commitment on policing (...) I recall time and again being told that the IRA would never decommission; they would never give up violence; they would never commit to exclusively peaceful means. But they have done all these things. Sinn Féin has demonstrated one of the most remarkable examples of leadership I have come across in modern politics. It has been historic and it has been real."

In an article written just before his death earlier this month, Ulster Volunteer Force leader David Ervine underlined the magnitude of the shift: "The endgame was always going to shake up the republican movement and its supporters. It is, after all, the final acceptance by republicans of Northern Ireland as a viable and integral part of the UK. It is also the final acceptance by republicans that no authority other than state authority is either practicable or tolerable. It is worth consideration that if Adams pulls it off at the ard fheis, a real line in history will have been drawn."

A triumphant Ian Paisley junior already claimed late last year: "We couldn't kill them, but we can destroy them and their ideology." A republican who accepts the police is no longer a republican, he said: "Look who's under pressure tonight: the traitors in Sinn Féin - traitors to republicanism! Rejoice, our enemy is turning against themselves." In an email to a convicted loyalist, Jeffrey Donaldson writes: "These decisions are a million miles away from 1916 and the declaration of a 32-county republic. In short, the IRA has lost the battle for a united Ireland."

Alex Kane of the Ulster Unionist Party wrote in the pro-unionist daily News Letter: "The IRA has ended the futile 'armed struggle'. Partition has been recognised. Republicans will cooperate with unionists in Stormont. The ongoing British presence (along with the new MI5 centre) is accepted as a fact of life. The PSNI and the British justice and judicial systems will be given the thumbs-up from Sinn Féin in a few days time. Short of burning the tricolour and hoisting the union flag over Connolly House, there isn't much more that Sinn Féin could do to admit that Northern Ireland, unionism and the present United Kingdom are here and here to stay."

Yet for a faction of unionism this is not enough. East Derry DUP MP Gregory Campbell insisted that more was required than formal recognition and participation in policing structures: the Provisionals would be judged on their work with the police to stamp out any remaining republican organisation still engaging in armed struggle against the British state. When asked if he would call on Sinn Féin to report so-called 'dissident' activity to the police, he replied: "That will be a part of our test for them after the ard fheis. We have a series of things to put into practice to test them to see if their support for policing means anything. They can't turn a blind eye on criminals because they are former colleagues."

That applies to all crime in the republican community, said Campbell. In particular Sinn Féin must finger anyone known to be behind fuel laundering and similar crimes, as well as reporting the killers of Belfast man Robert McCartney who was murdered in January 2005.

Similarly DUP MEP Jim Allister declares that any "mere verbal commitment" should be "tested and tried over a credible period". Among those tests he suggested disbandment of the IRA as an indispensable part of proof of support for the rule of law, the return of "ill-gotten gains", including the deeds of the Northern Bank robbery, encouragement to join the PSNI and an increased conviction rate.

The Provisional leadership tries to sell the decision by telling its grassroots that its move into policing structures represents a new site of struggle, that it is a strategic advance which will enable it to wrest power from 'the securocrats' and by pointing to the possibility of a Sinn Féin minister of policing or justice when those powers are devolved.10 

However, the transfer of 'counter-terrorist' intelligence from the police to MI5 means at present that any such minister would have no effective control over counter-terrorist operations in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin is colluding with the British state to hide the fact MI5 has been given an expanded role in the north to take supreme control of all counter-terrorist intelligence with virtually no accountability or outside control.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party's Mark Durkan correctly points out that the Provisional agenda is in fact allowing the British government to set the clock back on policing. Under the Patten reforms (132 of its 175 recommendations have already been implemented), the PSNI is obliged by law to open all its files to the police ombudsman in any investigation, whereas under the Blair-Adams deal, the ombudsman will not be able to investigate MI5.11  In fact, the Patten reforms and the Belfast agreement offered even less than the Sunningdale agreement in failing to provide an all-Ireland authority on policing. (The appointment of Lord Carlile, who supported no-jury Diplock courts and backed the 90-day detention without trial of terrorist suspects in Britain, to a role in annually reviewing MI5 in the north, was bizarrely hailed as a victory by Sinn Féin.12 )

According to The Observer, "Tony Blair's statement on MI5 this month isn't 'a very major step' towards getting MI5 out of Ireland, as Sinn Féin claims. In fact, far from leaving Ireland, MI5 is building brand new £100 million headquarters in Palace Barracks in Hollywood outside Belfast."

The paper quotes Durkan as saying: "MI5's role will undermine the whole point of Patten, which was to grant some democratic control and scrutiny over security policies. If the status quo remains, any future minister of justice or policing will have no access, let alone control of, a crucial part of security policy."13 

Liam Clarke writes in The Sunday Times: "A policing minister will not have sweeping powers like running the security apparatus in any case. His/her greatest power will be introducing legislation, such as a bill to end 50% remission for sex offenders; but the policing minister cannot give orders to the chief constable. There has not even been a new breakthrough on the controversial plastic bullets - there still needs to be a total ban on those weapons. So-called 'civic policing' under the new arrangements will not end 'political policing'."14 

The Provisional movement's attempt to change the policing and justice system from within is congenitally flawed. An active republican and former member of the Provisional movement writes in the Communist Party of Ireland journal: "In many instances of political action it's a case of not what you do, but why you do it. The Sinn Féin ard chomhairle [executive] motion that republicans back An Garda as well as the PSNI without any equivalent Patten-type reforms is an indication that a republican endorsement of 'law and order' is being sought for all the wrong reasons ...

"Any notion that Sinn Féin or anybody else can enter the most reactionary institution of power in the Six Counties, while the British maintain ultimate control and subvert its reason for existing, is naive ... As Karl Marx once stated, 'The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purpose'."15 

Experience shows that, once you attempt to create change from within, the parameters of the system create constraints which prevent political actors from transforming it. Once in, the party's room for manoeuvre will become much more constrained than if it were applying pressure from without. It is not the British state which will have to obey republican rules, but the other way around. Accepting and endorsing the policing and justice system is not a republican strategy - it is a British state and unionist demand. They have already determined the rules of the game. Attempts to change the system from within will only result in republicans being stuck on the other side of the barricade.

The paradox at the heart of the Sinn Féin position is one of claiming to be republican while at the same time being prepared to support political policing that will put republicans in jails for armed resistance to the British state. If the party is not prepared to perform such functions at the behest of the British state and the DUP, then it will never attain the justice ministry. Sinn Féin embracing the British PSNI is not a sign of republican success, but is a mark of its failure.