“Policing issue will not be a pre-condition” – Dermot Ahern

The Irish Times’ Frank Millar is conducting 4 interviews in the run-up to the 15th May and the attempt to resurrect the Assembly. The first was with Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern[subs req] who seemed somewhat unprepared for the questioning on the Irish government’s approach to resolving the issue of policing.From today’s Irish Times –

And there is one other potential obstacle, little discussed in detail, yet every bit as complex as the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement itself. Even assuming the Rev Ian Paisley might be tempted to conclude a power-sharing deal with Sinn Féin, does Dermot Ahern accept that the DUP leader would first require Sinn Féin to endorse the Police Service of Northern Ireland?

Mr Ahern makes clear “the policing issue wouldn’t be a pre-condition” for a November deal, before recalling that both parties appeared content to put the issue “in the middle distance” when negotiating around the “Comprehensive Agreement” proposals in autumn 2004.

There is of course a question as to whether the parties were negotiating for real back then. But be that as it may, many would say had that deal gone ahead it would have come quickly unstuck precisely because it did not contain a resolution on policing.

Yet my sense is that the Minister shares Mr Hain’s expectation that it might only be resolved in the context of the future devolution of policing and justice powers?

“That would be our view,” Mr Ahern confirms: “But I agree with people that it follows as night follows day that if parties are going to go into an executive there has to be an understanding that there is a move toward full acceptance of policing.”

The problem with this scenario is that there appears a considerable time lapse between the darkness and daylight?

“What I’m saying is Sinn Féin have work to do, and they accept that,” says Mr Ahern, adding that he always agreed with Séamus Mallon “who said policing would be the key issue in any resolution”.

Yet Mr Mallon might argue that by successfully delaying a resolution, policing is the issue Sinn Féin is now using to complete the destruction of the SDLP?

Mr Ahern doesn’t think so: “Sinn Féin recognise they need to move on policing. Equally, others need to recognise that Sinn Féin have to be part of that policing hierarchy.”

I put it to the Minister that he would not sit in government with anybody who did not, as a matter of first principle, support the Garda Síochána.

He instantly confirms: “No I wouldn’t.”

So why should any unionist politician sit in government with people who refuse to support the PSNI?

Mr Ahern is clear cut: “You’re not dealing with like with like between the South and the North.”

What’s the difference?

“You’re dealing with 35 years of history, the very strong suggestion that over 35 years people within the security services had been involved in some criminal activities . . . You haven’t got that in the Republic, you’re dealing with a normal democratic society and I think it’s unfair to equate the two.”

Mr Ahern volunteers the same applies to the political question – why should Sinn Féin be considered eligible for government in the North while rejected in the South? Again: “You’re dealing with a normal democratic society in the South, whereas you’re dealing with a situation as per the Good Friday agreement where it’s accepted by the vast majority that the only way forward is by cross-community partnership. The Patten proposals were all designed . . .”

But they’ve all been implemented, surely? “No they haven’t been fully implemented, but they were designed to bring us to a stage . . .”

Which substantial pieces of Patten have not been implemented?

“The parties haven’t totally subscribed,” replies the Minister: “For instance, Sinn Féin aren’t part of the Policing Board.”

But that’s hardly Patten’s fault? “I accept that.”

So which parts have not been implemented? “The point I was making was that there are still gaps in that parties have not fully implemented Patten.”

Does the Minister accept that Patten has been implemented? “I think you’d have to leave that to the Oversight Commissioner.”

There are a number of issues arising from the interview, not least the Minister’s assertion that the Patten reforms haven’t been implemented because “For instance, Sinn Féin aren’t part of the Policing Board”, but it’s the apparent gap between what he has said on forming an executive and what his counterpart, the Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland, Peter Hain has said.

Here’s the quote from the interview –

“But I agree with people that it follows as night follows day that if parties are going to go into an executive there has to be an understanding that there is a move toward full acceptance of policing.”

And this is what Peter Hain said at Northern Ireland Questions in the Commons

Mr. Hain: On the hon. Gentleman’s point about criminality, it is now clear that the Provisional IRA – and, therefore, its political link, Sinn Fein – is now committed to stamping out criminality and paramilitary activity. The only logical, sustainable long-term position for anyone seeking to perform parliamentary legislative duties or exercise ministerial office is to support the police. We will be working on that and encouraging Sinn Fein to do that.

The wriggle room, if it exists, is in Dermot Ahern’s reference to “an understanding that there is a move toward full acceptance”. He appears to believe that would be sufficient cover to allow an Executive to be formed. I’m not convinced.

The problem is not just gettng the DUP, and others, to accept such an understanding, but in getting a convincing understanding from Sinn Féin.

Hain has suggested that with the granting to the Office of Secretary of State of the ability to devolve policing powers by September, as part of the Miscellaneous Provisions Bill, Sinn Féin will move to endorse policing before the next attempt to form the Executive – as Mick noted here

A suggestion that may be based on what Adams has already stated about his party’s position on the endorsement of policing

And there is a triple-lock on the devolving of policing powers that could prove to be a final and perhaps insurmountable hurdle

Mr. Hanson: Can my hon. Friend confirm my understanding that again there is a triple lock on the devolution of policing? First, the Assembly must want it; secondly, the Government must support it; and thirdly, the political parties themselves need to take it forward. There will be a vote on the Floor of the House or in Committee. There is a triple lock to ensure that the matter is resolved by all parties in the interests of devolution.

The difficulty appears to be as much of the governments own making as it is the inability of Sinn Féin to give an understanding that they are moving toward full acceptance of policing.

Given that policing can not be devolved before an Executive is in place, and the format of the Ministry with responsibility for policing will not be finalised until after the triple-lock has been negotiated, that understanding will have to be given on the basis of a future situation, both in terms of Sinn Féin’s endorsement of policing, and on the devolved powers themselves.

That’s the conundrum facing the Irish and British governments, as well as the political parties. Would such an understanding of a future endorsement be sufficient for the other political parties? and would the uncertain future situation enable SF to give that understanding in the first place?

Hain’s only logical, sustainable long-term position may prove unattainable in time for that November deadline.

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