Constructive ambiguity has created its very own predictable process. We have seen it, again and again. The period of pretending the issue is just not there. The crisis. The trip to Downing Street, the hard talk, the threats of disaster/breakdown/the end of devolution, the IMC report, the opinion research that just happens to support the… Prime Minister’s visit… Chief Constable’s pennyworth… the deal.
The current ‘crisis’ arises from the ambiguity within the St Andrew’s paperwork, where it says that, roughly speaking, it would be a good idea if ‘Policing and Justice’ were transferred to Stormont by May or thereabouts, 2008. It was left for the Parties to agree on the detail: the same parties who found it impossible to appoint a single ‘Victims Commissioner’ – instead we have four.
The wording at St Andrews around the transfer of Policing and Justice was the same sort of wording around Decommissioning in the Good Friday documentation. Of course Sinn Fein would do all they could to bring about decommissioning, but it was up to the IRA to do the act. Similarly, now, of course May was a target, but there was nothing to say that May was a fixed deadline for the transfer of Policing and Justice.
The disquiet around the transfer of Policing and Justice is very real. It is easy to point to Jim Allister’s ‘Traditional Unionist Voice’ and suggest that this is the only vocal dissent to the transfer of Policing and Justice. But he is not a lone voice.
David Adams writing powerfully in the Irish Times describes the prospect of giving Sinn Fein power over policing as “just madness” in the wake of the acquittal of three men charged with offences related to the murder of Robert McCartney. Hugh Jordan in the Sunday World shared similar thoughts (July 6th). A month later the Editor of the Church of Ireland Gazette, Canon Ian Ellis questioned whether there was ‘adequate confidence in the Stormont administration for the devolution justice and policing to proceed.’ Emer O’Kelly suggested that the ‘Frightening men haven’t gone away’ in the Irish Independent.
While there is both nationalist and unionist concern on the transfer of policing and justice, it is the Unionist community that is most obviously nervous, and massively suspicious, about Sinn Fein’s notion of ‘policing’ and ‘justice’. There seem little movement undertakenby Sinn Fein over the past ten years that could be described as clear-cut, unambiguous, decisive.
While there has been decommissioning by the IRA, the verification of that process was never entirely satisfactory to the unionist population. Over this past summer, the use of IRA semtex in an explosive device in Fermanagh once again raises the question of just what was decommissioned, and how much?
The Independent Monitoring Commission, which collates information from PSNI, Garda Síochána and other sources of intelligence, wants us to believe its assessment (rather than factual evidence) that the IRA is no longer engaged in activities for the purpose of terrorism.
Stormontgate revealed IRA tentacles reaching into Stormont (Castle/Buildings), the Parades Commission, the Police Ombudsman’s Office, as well as reporting on community activists working at local interfaces. Has this information gathering ceased, or has it been simply re-designated as non-military? More recently the IMC suggested that IRA intelligence gathering is to provide information on so-called dissident republicans: is this altruistic or self-serving?
While Sinn Fein would have us believe that the IRA has been decommissioned sufficiently to be no ‘threat’, actions in respect of loyal order and band parades over the summer has shown that there has been little decommissioning of cultural exclusionism and demonisation. Far from an accommodation with Protestant neighbours, the politically driven ‘resident’ committees have been hyperactive in areas across Northern Ireland – though nothing to hit the headlines.
Local Protestant communities and organisations have watched with alarm as thugs seem to act with impunity, and orchestrated protests act beyond the law. Sinn Fein has been intimately involved in ‘resident’ groups, which have operated within a campaign framework unchanged this past fifteen years – with the threat of violence turned up and down, depending on the level of pressure Sinn Fein desires to exert in the broader political process.
Devolution of policing will not change Sinn Fein’s ambiguity towards law and order on local matters such parades or on addressing republican violence (Kearney/McCartney/Quinn), which itself feeds ‘dissident’ justification that they act within the broad framework of republican ideological morality. The IRA ‘Army Council’ provides legitimacy to all, as no government that is not United Ireland Government on its terms has ultimate legitimacy in policing and justice.
The typical unionist is a rational being, instinctively doubting any romantic or institutional pleas to believe. Unionists look at the politicians, the police, the ‘independent’ Commissions, and the track record of all of these. For in among the smoke and mirrors of the political process they have learned to discern the shadows and the distorted reflections of reality.
For Sinn Fein/IRA to be considered as having substantially changed over the past ten years, it will have to appear more than changed by way of tactical emphasis.
The role that Sinn Fein would have through OFMDFM will not be ignored: in the appointment of the Attorney General (who appoints the Director of Public Prosecutions); and the Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commissioner, and Commission (which makes all judicial appointments up to High Court Judges, Tribunal Chairmen and Coroners). OFMDFM may well also take responsibility to appoint the ‘independent’ members of the Policing Board. The notion that devolution of Policing and Justice would be OK if Sinn Fein does not have Ministerial responsibility will be examined closely, and ambiguity will not be acceptable.
Constructive ambiguity may have created the space to allow the first power-sharing Executive, because this was what enough of the electorate wanted to believe. Enough unionists were initially prepared to suspend their instinctive rationality in the hope that a democratic, peaceful future was possible. But process after ambiguous process has stretched belief to breaking point. Unionists have process fatigue and see no current crisis over devolution of policing and justice – only a protracted period of dealing with no definitive outcome other than a pregnant pause before the next ‘crisis’.