David Granville argues that the British government needs to come to the aid of unionists by persuading them that their best interests lie in an accomodation with nationalists and republicans on the basis of the Good Friday and St Andrews agreements - and ultimately within a united Ireland
SINN FEIN'S vote to endorse the Police Service of Northern Ireland and to support the rule of law, taken at an extraordinary meeting of the party in Dublin on 28 January, has been warmly welcomed across the political spectrum.
Quite literally, it has saved the Good Friday and St Andrew's deals from immediate demise and renewed pressure on the DUP to commit itself to power-sharing with republicans in a new assembly after new elections at the beginning of March.
Given that the overwhelming majority of Irish nationalists have traditionally viewed the Royal Ulster Constabulary, with considerable justification, as the officially-armed wing of Ulster unionism and that many are still unconvinced and ambivalent about the, to date, partial reforms carried out in the wake of the Patten report, the vote seems nothing short of remarkable.
This is perhaps even more so given the publication in the week before the Sinn Fein vote of a damning report by Northern Ireland police ombudsman Nualo O'Loan, which confirmed widespread collusion between Northern Ireland Special Branch officers and loyalist paramiliatries in north Belfast between 1991 and 2003.
The report concluded that the UVF gang at the heart of the investigation were responsible for between 10 and 15 murders and numerous other crimes, including attempted murders and drug dealing.
Several members of the gang were handsomely paid Special Branch informers and were shielded from investigation and protected from prosecution by their police handlers. O'Loan concluded that collusion could not have happened without the "knowledge and support" of the force's most senior officers.
Up to 40 police officers, including two former Assistant Chief Constables and seven Detective Chief Inspectors, failed to cooperate with her inquiry, while others, including some still serving in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), gave "evasive, contradictory, and on occasion farcical answers to questions".
Despite files having been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions it is not expected that charges will be brought against any current or former police officer.
The ombudsman's report follows a string of others published in Britain and Ireland in recent years, including three by Sir John Stevens. All have pointed to widespread collusion between British security forces and loyalist paramilitaries, many of whom were also acting as paid informants.
It should now be obvious to people in Britain that when Gerry Adams or human Rights organisations such as the Pat Finucane Centre refer of the latest revelations as being just "the tip of the iceberg", that they are not using the phrase as a casual rhetorical flourish.
It is against this backdrop that Sinn Fein voted to endorse policing in Northern Ireland. Clearly, further changes to the way policing is conducted in the north will be required, but the party is potentially now in a stronger position to influence future developments and ensure greater accountability.
As with all watershed issues faced by the mainstream republican movement since embarking on the road to a purely political solution to conflict in the north, Sinn Fein leaders took great care to ensure that what they were proposing had overwhelming majority backing prior to the final decision being taken.
Despite some dissenting voices, an extensive programme of party activist and wider community consultations in the run up to the vote helped to deliver a thumping 9-1 majority in favour of the leadership motion on the day.
The negotiation of important concessions and commitments on policing, including on a timetable for the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont and the cancelation of government plans to integrate the PSNI and MI5, also proved invaluable in securing endorsement of the party's change in strategy.
An assurance from Chief Constable Hugh Orde's that plastic bullets would not in future be used for public order or crowd control purposes also played its part.
Paisley's immediate reaction to the Sinn Fein vote was to give a cautious welcome accompanied by signs that he still harbours hopes of stalling the process further by challenging Sinn Fein's bone fides on policing at every turn.
However, there is growing evidence that Blair and his ministers are becoming increasingly frustrated by the DUP's antics and are not prepared to give Paisley the usual degree of 'wiggle room' afforded to unionists. This is at least partly down to Blair's desire to devolution back on track before he takes leave of No 10.
The main question now is whether Paisley and the DUP can deliver in the same way that the Sinn Fein and IRA have repeatedly shown that they can.
Besides the politically obvious, one key difference between the two parties is that Adams, McGuinness and co. have long known where they have been going and have worked out a successful strategy for achieving this objective.
Paisley and his rag-taggle band of reactionaries, bufoons and bigots, on the other hand, have only ever known where they don't want to be - inside a United Ireland, with no chance or turning back the clock to an era where simply to be born Protestant was enough to secure privileges in the form of access to public housing, health care and guaranteed employment.
For republicans, it has been a tortuous path back to the civil rights strategy devised originally by the late Desmond Greaves and the Connolly Association back in the late 1950s and put into action by trade unionists and other progressives who came together to found the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA) in 1967.
Greaves rightly identified that a campaign for fundamental civil rights (the ending of partition was not one of the civil right's movement's demands) would undermine and divide unionism and eventually bring about reunification through peaceful means.
He argued that the securing of full civil rights would remove the rational basis of unionism, which he identified as being based on domination and privilege rather than any notion of loyalty to the Crown.
This, of course, is the key importance of the Good Friday and St Andrews deals. Of course, what happens down the line is up to the forces of national democracy in Ireland and their friends in Britain and elsewhere.
For unionists in general, and for the DUP in particular, it has long been clear to virtually everyone but them that a strategy based upon little more than obstruction is only viable so long as the government at Westminster allows it to be so.
With the latest move by Sinn Fein on policing, it could be that they are finally about to be forced to confront the reality that if they want to have a maximum amount of influence on developments in the north, they need to engage constructively with nationalists republicans on equal terms.
It's this which has sent Paisley and the DUP leaders into such a spin. Even now, Big Ian can't decide whether to turn away from the dark side and to declare himself to be a born-again pragmatist, or whether to stick with the rejectionist No men and women of unionism, who are so backward-looking that the term anti-diluvian barely does them justice.
For what it's worth, my money is on him switching to the pragmatist wing. However, unlike the difficult but carefully engineered path negotiated by the Sinn Fein leadership over more than two-and-a-half decades, it's far from clear whether in doing so he'll be able to avoid a major split in the DUP triggering a general re-alignment within unionism.
It's now time for the British government to come to the aid of unionists by doing everything in their power to convince them that there is no alternative to adopting a new forward-looking strategy based on seeking an accommodation with nationalists and republicans within the terms the Good Friday and St Andrew's agreements.
The above article originally appeared in theMorning Star newspaper on 13.02.07.
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Copyright © 2007 David Granville