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Coalition trying to scare voters with spectre of Sinn Féin minister for justice

If potential future coalition partners baulk at the prospect of handing SF the Justice portfolio, they should look to how Northern Ireland handled it

The Government’s gloves finally came off with Sinn Féin this Tuesday, during the confidence debate on Minister for Justice Helen McEntee.

Fine Gael had released a slick online video that morning, explaining “why Mary Lou McDonald should never be taoiseach or have the power to appoint a justice minister or Garda commissioner”. It cited Sinn Féin’s “links to criminality”, focusing on the Jonathan Dowdall affair.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil front benchers expanded on this in the Dáil, referring to IRA murders of gardaí; the past behaviour of some of Sinn Féin’s front bench, which includes convictions for abusing gardaí; equivocation over the Special Criminal Court; the kangaroo court for IRA rape victim Máiría Cahill, held in Sinn Féin offices; and the party’s general “dark history of condoning murder and terrorism”, to quote Fine Gael TD Alan Dillon.

All of it had a theme: Sinn Féin is particularly unfit for government because it would be in charge of law and order.


“It is no secret that officials in the Department of Justice are filled with dread at the prospect of a Sinn Féin Minister,” Fine Gael’s Ciarán Cannon said.

Unionist reaction to this is more conflicted than many people in the Republic might realise. Any satisfaction at Sinn Féin’s discomfort is tinged with annoyance that a party supposedly unfit for government in the South must be in government in the North, at Dublin’s scolding insistence.

A more general annoyance, for everyone in Northern Ireland, is that the South never seems to think it has anything to learn from the North, or even realises there are relevant experience to draw upon.

It helps that the justice post is relatively harmless, certainly compared to the DUP’s scare stories

Circumstances and institutions are very different, of course – Stormont is more of a council than a government. But there ought to be some awareness of its carefully worked-out compromise on the issue of a Sinn Féin justice minister.

Policing and justice were not finally devolved to Northern Ireland until the 2010 Hillsborough Castle Agreement. Sinn Féin had spent the preceding decade stalling over “recognition” of the PSNI. The DUP scared its voters with the spectre of Sinn Féin policing spokesman Gerry Kelly, a convicted terrorist, in charge of the justice system – the impression was almost given that he would be presiding over arrests and trials.

At Hillsborough, after prolonged nudging from London, Dublin and Washington, both parties agreed the new post of justice minister would be filled via a cross-community assembly vote. This differs from other ministerial posts, which are filled via the d’Hondt formula, based on each party’s assembly seats.

The UK government wrote the deal into the law enacting the Belfast Agreement.

In practice, a cross-community vote can only pass with DUP and Sinn Féin support. The only way they can agree a common candidate is to pick someone from another party, typically the leader of Alliance. When Alliance went into opposition in 2016, they chose an independent unionist.

This arrangement was never intended to be permanent. There is still an expectation it will be reformed but, after 13 years, it has become an accepted fixture.

It helps that the justice post is relatively harmless, certainly compared to the DUP’s scare stories. Almost every aspect of the criminal justice system is managed by an independent agency or a non-ministerial body, with the minister having no operational say or even much oversight.

The theme is that Sinn Féin is particularly unfit for government because it would be in charge of law and order

Ironically, Gerry Kelly sits on the policing board that oversees the PSNI. He was on the interview panel that chose the new chief constable last month, alongside representatives from the DUP and Alliance. Sinn Féin has been accused of meddling with the police, undermining the board and favouring ineffective candidates for chief constable, but it does not get things all its own way.

A comparable arrangement in the Republic might involve other parties pledging not to support any coalition deal where Sinn Féin holds the justice portfolio.

The party could be set goals to move beyond this, such as supporting the Special Criminal Court and providing truth and justice to IRA victims. A proper accounting of the republican movement’s finances would also be advisable before it gets its hands on the law. The public could be reassured on the independence of most facets of the criminal justice system, with extra protections promised if necessary.

Much of this is already Fianna Fáil policy, but neither it nor Fine Gael want to say so, let alone set out a formal process. They prefer not to be seen to be entertaining the concept of Sinn Féin in coalition, a luxury that Stormont’s mandatory coalition system does not allow.

On top of these party political concerns, there is a clear view that the Republic does not really require its own version of a “peace process”, for any purpose. Yet bringing Sinn Féin into a government, as opposed to a glorified council, requires most care of all.