INSIDE POLITICS - SINN FÉIN ARD FHEIS
"THE higher they build their barriers, the stronger we become.”
Gerry Adam’s final words on a strange and — yes, that overused word — historic day.
And for Sinn Féin, there was never going to be a higher barrier than policing, and what will be its ultimate endorsement and backing of the PSNI and the rule of law in the North.
Or, in another sense, a greater act of humble pie.
Viewed from some quarters — and even within Sinn Féin itself — this was the greatest compromise of republicanism, bigger than
decommissioning, bigger than the standing down of the IRA, bigger than all the other concessions and sacrifices Sinn Féin and the IRA have made — and have been forced to make — in the past decade.
The taunts of ‘sell-out’ that came from the small group of Republican Sinn Féin supporters at the gates could not be fully erased, and still echoed faintly in the hall. And for the most part, all the justifications, all the arguments, were addressed to those and others like them outside the hall, not to the convinced and signed-up at the RDS.
It’s symptomatic of the complete command and hold that Adams has on republicanism that yesterday’s vote was portrayed as a victory, as a breakthrough, as putting one up on its enemies and detractors — the British government, unionism, the SDLP (which came in for dog’s abuse) and the Irish government (which fared hardly better).
Adams contributions book-ended the seven hours of debate. Not so much debate but almost a procession. From the moment the conference began at 10am, everybody knew it was already in the bag and that the motion would be overwhelmingly endorsed.
The day panned out into a day in which the party and its members could have their say. Yes, there were a couple of dissenting voices. But it seemed to me that most delegates wanted to put the imminent and inevitable decision that was going to be made later in the day into some context — into a personal context as some did, or as a means of repeating republican credos.
And inevitably it became an event where the debate seemed as symbolic as it was real. The symbolism was increased by the presence of republican icons like Martin Meehan, Rose Dugdale and the likes of James Monaghan and Niall Connolly of the Colombia Three.
This was not a fig leaf or window-dressing for any humiliating climb-down, they argued trenchantly. But the more they argued that line, the more they gave out about the SDLP and the governments and unionism, the more you kind of thought: compromise.
There’s no doubting the gravity of the decision and its bravery. There’s no doubting that this was historic. But there was also no doubting the compromise it involved.
In the end, it happened quickly. As 5.30pm approached, there was still a long queue of delegates waiting to speak. It looked like it could go on for several hours. But then somebody demanded that the vote take place now as many people had long distances to travel.
Within five minutes, the vote had been taken and it was all over. Of the 2,000 or more delegates, hardly 100 dissented.
“It was over 90%,” said Martin McGuinness afterwards.
“That is an achievement after several weeks and months of a very difficult and emotional debate.
“For the delegates to make such a brave and mature decision is very gratifying for us.”
Having said that, the argument employed by the leadership was quite convoluted and was not altogether convincing.
The question that it had to grapple with was what made signing up to policing so wrong in the past and what made it so right now.
Gerry Adams used a strange combination of words when explaining this in his speech.
“Sinn Féin stayed out of policing until now because that was the best way to bring about the necessary threshold,” he said.
He was suggesting a Malcolm Gladwell type “tipping point”. What supported that? Police ombudsman Nuala O’Loan’s report on the Raymond McCord investigation; SF’s own claims that the Irish Government and the SDLP have failed to make policing accountable; the concessions SF won in relation to devolved policing and the removal of MI5 from civic policing.
“That’s where SF comes in,” he said. “We have to ensure that those dreadful events (collusion) never happen again.
“… We cannot leave policing to the unionist parties or the SDLP or the Irish government.”
McGuinness advanced the argument in more trenchant terms. In one of the only covert references to any sense of a climb-down for SF, he acknowledged the hurt it would cause.
But in equal measure, he laid out the quid pro quo that would follow, the payback for this compromise.
“I make it clear to Ian Paisley that the 28th of January 2007 is a big day for Sinn Féin but that Monday, the 29th January is an even bigger day for Ian Paisley,” he said to thunderous applause.
The SDLP have hardly been cheerleaders for policing but the SF leadership portrayed them as such, to try to argue (not altogether convincingly) that the SDLP capitulated on policing but not so SF.
“We have to boss policing. We are the bosses,” argued McGuinness.
“The PSNI is going to have to earn our trust. They are not going to get our trust tomorrow morning or after this vote.”
And a little later: “I want the police to watch MI5, to spy on MI5, to arrest MI5.”
And that faint echo came from the dissenters outside, about all this being a ‘sell-out’. McGuinness delivered the definitive line here:
“We come from an IRA tradition that fought the British army and the RUC to a standstill.
“We are being criticised by groups who have yet to fight them to a start.”
How many times in the past 13 years has it been categorically stated that the war is over? And how many times has it emerged that it was yet another false dawn?
Yesterday we did see a piece of history being made, with SF’s acceptance of policing and the PSNI.
With it came an acceptance that it was all over as far as the IRA was concerned. Bar the shouting, of course. And be assured, with Ian Paisley and the DUP involved, there will be plenty of that over the next few months.
from the Irish Examiner