Anxiety at lack of action on policing and justice
There are ominous signs that Northern Irerland politics are becoming mired once more in intransigence and destructive name calling, writes GERRY MORIARTY
THE GOVERNMENTS in Dublin and London are becoming increasingly concerned over what Peter Robinson is going to do about policing and justice. Will he press ahead with the devolution of these powers to the Northern Executive by early in the new year or will he draw out the devolution process until after the Westminster elections due by early June at the latest? They don’t know.
It’s a very serious question. If it’s the first case then powersharing politics will continue to grind forward, however frustratingly and haltingly. If it’s the second then we are back to the familiar ground of impending crisis that could lead to the collapse of the current Stormont administration and new Assembly elections by early spring. The next elections aren’t due until 2011.
“We wish there was more happening above the ground,” said one insider. By that he meant the British and Irish governments hoped that the DUP First Minister Peter Robinson would have started actually working to convince unionism that now is the time to take the step on policing and justice. But that isn’t happening.
Up at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, this week some political figures were explicitly wondering was Robinson, for a variety of reasons which we shall come to, prepared to precipitate meltdown followed by Assembly elections by February or March.
Dublin and London were careful not to ratchet the issue to crisis level at this stage, but nonetheless there is anxiety about where Robinson is going. That was reflected by a speech from Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin in the Seanad this week, by comments from Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward, and by a sounding of the alarm bells by Sinn Féin.
Martin spoke of the need to just get on with policing and justice and implicitly warned the DUP against setting new preconditions for transferring justice powers or seeking to unravel the Belfast Agreement. Northern Secretary Shaun Woodward seized on the view of the Independent Monitoring Commission that delay on devolution was playing into the hands of the dissidents.
In the current edition of the Sinn Féin weekly newspaper, An Phoblacht, the party’s national chairman Declan Kearney also expressed fears that Robinson is looking beyond the British general election. It’s interesting here that Sinn Féin employed a relatively junior member, although a senior strategist, to make the point. Sinn Féin by not wheeling out Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness at this stage to increase the political temperature must believe there is still some possibility the situation can be rescued.
Over recent months Robinson made clear that policing and justice will be devolved when he has a satisfactory deal on cash and confidence. He’s got the cash – up to £1 billion from Gordon Brown which the British say can be taken away if there is no fairly speedy devolution – and now he must decide if there is unionist confidence for the transfer of powers.
That was generally interpreted as Robinson through some form of dialogue or consultation with the unionist community being in a position to make that call in the coming weeks. But at Westminster last week he introduced what seems a precondition when he linked the scrapping of the Parades Commission to devolving justice.
That prompted a flurry of activity between Dublin and London, the Martin, Woodward and Sinn Féin statements, and yesterday’s meeting between Woodward and Martin in London. They are more than a little worried about what Robinson will do next.
The DUP leader is in something of a dilemma. He knows that some of his nine Westminster seats are under threat from the right, from Jim Allister’s Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), and from the opposite flank, the Ulster Unionists, revitalised by their liaison with David Cameron’s Tories.
Yet, even by playing it hard he will still be in difficulty. It’s not simply a case that procrastination is necessarily the best option. If there is no policing and justice devolution, Sinn Féin is likely to walk out of the Assembly and Executive which would compel Woodward, under the St Andrews Agreement, to call Assembly elections. While unionists and others would castigate Sinn Féin for triggering elections, nonetheless there is a real possibility it could emerge as the biggest party after polling day, with Martin McGuinness in line for the First Minister post.
Fighting on TUV ground mightn’t be the wisest decision either. This week TUV member Keith Harbinson, a solicitor, issued a statement complaining about expenditure on Irish language translation, which is fair enough. But the press statement was headlined, “TUV Blast Leprechaun Language Waste”. That’s the sort of language the DUP used to use on political platforms. Does Robinson want to bring the DUP and Northern Ireland back to that form of political neanderthalism?
Just pressing ahead with devolution and ploughing on through the rough and the smooth political ground would seem the least-worst option for the DUP leader and more importantly for the North. But Robinson may think differently. DUP members say regardless of the pressure they won’t be “bullied” by Sinn Féin or anyone else and will move on policing and justice in their own good time.
Gerry Moriarty is Northern Editor