Ireland: impasse over policing

FRFI 213 February / March 2010

The political dispute over the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Six Counties was still threatening to bring down the power-sharing government as FRFI went to press. Both Gordon Brown and Irish Taoiseach Brian Cowan went to Belfast at the end of January to try to force through an agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein. The talks follow a three-year impasse following Sinn Fein’s acceptance in 2007 of British police in Ireland. Since then the reality of a political settlement enshrining the Unionist veto has paralysed the process much to Sinn Fein’s frustration. Allegations of corruption and sleaze levelled in particular at the DUP have complicated matters: the DUP leadership fears it will lose unionist support if there are elections brought about by a collapse of Stormont.

The October 2006 St Andrews Agreement between the parties and the Irish and British governments forced Sinn Fein to accept British police in Ireland as the precondition for the devolution of policing powers to the north. Analysing the balance of political forces at the time we wrote that ‘The Unionist veto remains at the heart of the Six County statelet, fully backed by British imperialism – Sinn Fein’s reformist strategy of engagement with such forces will come up against severe tests in the period ahead.’ (FRFI 195) Since then the Unionist veto has prevented the completion of devolution as the DUP has insisted upon ‘unionist community confidence’ prior to the devolution of powers, in particular by relaxing rules the Parades Commission operates in respect of allowing supremacist Orange marches.

December brought revelations that the wife of First Minister Peter Robinson, Iris Robinson, had had an extramarital affair with an 18-year-old in 2008. Robinson has been a DUP MP since 2001, describing herself as a born-again Christian; in 2008 she received the ‘bigot of the year’ award from the gay equality organisation Stonewall for her comments on homosexuality. The revelations included allegations that she had solicited undeclared loans worth £50,000; her husband was then forced to step down as First Minister on 11 January because of accusations that he had known about the loans and had failed to report them himself. This has hit unionist support for the DUP hard. Also in December, a Dublin newspaper reported that the brother of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams is wanted by police in the north on 23 charges of paedophilia. In 1987, Gerry Adams was made aware of the allegations but later permitted his brother to remain as a senior Sinn Fein official and work in youth group projects in West Belfast and the border area until as late as 2004.

Despite the efforts of Brown and Cowan, neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP – for whom Peter Robinson remained lead negotiator – were prepared to reach an agreement by the end of January even though they had been given a 48-hour deadline. The DUP is determined not to appear ‘soft’ to its bigoted unionist constituency, while Sinn Fein would have even less to show for its engagement in the peace process if it conceded on the parades issue.

Figures released on 21 January show that the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) had tripled its use of anti-terror legislation in 2008/09, with almost 10,000 stop and searches across the north compared to 3,234 in 2007/08. 2,612 of these incidents occurred in the Republican areas of Derry and Strabane, compared to only 700 in unionist east and south Belfast. In January, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the use of the stop and search powers under section 44 of the Terrorism Act, which allows police to act without reasonable suspicion, was illegal. On 8 January Republican militants, using a remote-controlled bombing device, critically injured a PSNI officer in an attack in Randalstown, Co Antrim. The following week 10,000 PSNI personnel were issued with special mirrors to check under their vehicle for bombs.

As we have argued any ‘progress’ with the political process will be judged on the streets, where the feeling is that the devolution of policing powers is neither here nor there. That Sinn Fein supports British justice in Ireland shows how far it has travelled on the road from resistance to collaboration with British rule. As the economic crisis deepens, the Six County state’s dependence on British state subsidies in order to exist will come under increased pressure. Political prisoners remain in jail, unemployment and social inequality are on the rise, as is state repression – all concentrated in nationalist areas which have been the historic bedrock of the anti-imperialist struggle in Ireland. A new campaign against British rule must be built, learning from and not repeating the mistakes of the past.

Paul Mallon