When Gerry Adams was arrested for the murder in 1972 of mother-of- ten Jean McConville Sinn Féin claimed it was “political policing. The arrest of a high profile political leader during an election could hardly be anything else. That the intention to question him was notified by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to the highest levels of government in advance and that this government tells us it is keeping Washington informed is simply confirmation.
Yet when it comes to explaining what this political policing amounts to, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness claims lamely that the arrest is due to a “small cabal” of police officers, “an embittered rump of the old RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary)”. McGuinness claims that other police sources have described these people as the “dark side”.
So it’s not really political policing but a “rump” that presumably can be dealt with.
Yet Sinn Féin hasn’t asked for this but just a vague wish that the episode is “resolved in a satisfactory way”. Meanwhile the party will continue to “support the reformers who have made a massive contribution to policing” while saying that if it “does not work out the way that it should” the party will review the situation “in the context of continuing with a positive and constructive role in a vitally important peace process”.
However the press conference at which all this was said was really about a threat to reverse its previous political support for the PSNI, an event that would precipitate yet another crisis in the never-ending peace process.
But how can Sinn Féin complain of political policing when it supports this policing? How can it issue vague hopes that everything turns out ok when it also claims that policing is accountable? Why is it threatening to withdraw support (in a very vague and indirect way) when it can hold the police to account for its actions? Why doesn’t it just do that?
Graffiti has gone up in West Belfast attacking “Boston College Touts” (informers), i.e. those who gave their accounts of their own and Adams’ involvement in the IRA and its abduction of Jean McConville to the American institution , the acquisition of which may be the basis of his arrest.
Yet how can these people be touts when Sinn Féin supports the PSNI and has called for everyone to give the police whatever information they have on the actions of republicans (i.e. the dissidents)? The hypocrisy involved is as staggering as it is completely unselfconscious.
McGuinness claims that “Sinn Féin’s negotiations strategy succeeded in achieving new policing arrangements, but we always knew that there remained within the PSNI an embittered rump of the old RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary).” Yet it never made any qualification when it announced its original support for the PSNI.
Does this mean it only supports part of the PSNI or only partly support the PSNI? Which part? How is everyone else supposed to know which part to support? How would it and everyone else partly support the PSNI?
How can such a situation exist when Sinn Fein is in government? How could the brilliant negotiators of Sinn Fein agree to a deal to support the police without getting a guarantee its leader would not be lifted for allegations made years ago?
Why is Sinn Féin making such an issue of Adams’ arrest when it never threatened to withdraw support from the PSNI when the PSNI spent months allowing loyalist crowds, led by the UVF, to disrupt everyone else trying to get home during the flags protests?
Why did it not threaten to withdraw support when these illegal parades were allowed by the PSNI, in fact the PSNI met with organisers to arrange them, and not do so when these parades attacked the small Catholic area of the Short Strand? Only this week a judge found the PSNI (all of it, its leadership included and not just some “rump”) guilty of failing to enforce the law when it came to illegal loyalist parades.
Again these last few weeks drunken loyalist paramilitary mobs have taken down legal election posters and put up their own flags on main roads in Belfast, right in front of police stations, while the PSNI has told local residents on no account to take them down. Is it only Sinn Féin’s leaders who must be protected from the “dark side”?
And why indeed should Adams be protected? He denies any responsibility for Jean McConville’s killing but then he also denies ever being in the IRA. Other former IRA members, with unimpeachable republican credentials, have admitted their involvement and claimed Adams was in on it.
As the recently deceased IRA member Dolours Price put it “I wanted very much to put Gerry Adams where he belonged and where he had been. We had worked so closely with him, on many occasions and taken orders from him on many occasions and then to deny us, particularly after we had been through such a harrowing experience in prison … we were offended that he chose to deny us as much as he chose to deny his belonging to the IRA. To deny it is to offend those of us who partook in what we partook in.”
The message on the hill overlooking Belfast calls for the truth about the British Army murders of 11 people in Ballymurphy in August 1971, an enquiry into which has just been rejected by the British Government, but the same demand can apply to Adams.
But bad as these questions are for Sinn Féin none of them get anywhere near the biggest problem it has. And this problem is that Adams would not have been arrested if the British Government had not given it the ok. The political policing of which Sinn Féin speaks is not the actions of a “small rump” but the actions of a state.
That Sinn Féin should peddle the line of ‘sources’ within the PSNI that what is involved are the actions of “dark forces” against the reformers, “the many progressive and open-minded elements” of the PSNI that McGuinness hallucinates, is to swallow the old good-cop bad-cop tactic that old IRA men must have been warned about if caught or arrested. That this is now the line of Sinn Féin shows how far it has travelled and so low it has sunk.
Swallowing and parroting this means buying into the designs of the British state just as much as swallowing the good cop line gives you the bad cop result. What this means has been signalled by the British Government.
Recent speeches by Teresa Villiers, the NI Secretary of State, have glossed over the refusal of the Unionists to accept the deal offered by US diplomat Richard Haas, and supported by the British state itself, and have conciliated their intransigent line, which itself is a play to extreme loyalism. So the crimes of the state, never investigated with any seriousness it has been revealed, are even more to be airbrushed out of existence and instead it is the crimes of the “terrorists” which must be centre stage. The role of state forces in sponsoring these terrorist gangs will of course also be occluded.
So the past will more and more become the one imagined by unionism. Parades? Well the Parades Commission has given every evidence that its restrictions on loyal orders can be ignored with impunity. Getting a form of words that ends with the same result might not be difficult given even a minimal willingness of loyalism to engage with Catholic residents whose neighbourhoods they parade in. Flegs? Well we have noted the PSNI’s preference to let drunken loyalist mobs put up whatever symbols of intimidation they want.
That about completes the Haas agenda but even these do not signal the end game and this too is coming more into focus in a statement of Villiers.
In a speech widely reported, but the reporting of which missed its most significant element, Villiers anticipated the rewriting of the political deal on which Sinn Féin can claim success. She foresees the “evolution” of the power-sharing institutions towards them having an opposition.
The whole point however of these institutions is that no one is in opposition, in particular nationalists are not put into opposition by unionists who have not demonstrated any capacity to act in other than a sectarian fashion.
It’s put in the usual honeyed words:
“The third way in which politics could be moved forward here is through the evolution of the devolved institutions.
Let me be clear, power sharing and inclusivity are enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and the government is not going to undermine any of those principles.
. . . Yet at the same time nobody can plausibly argue that the institutions must be set in stone for all time.
Political institutions the world over adapt and change.
As the founding father of modern Conservatism – the Irishman Edmund Burke – once put it:
‘A state without the means of change is without means of preservation.’
And there are inherent weaknesses in a system in which it is very difficult to remove one’s rulers by voting and to choose a viable alternative.
That’s why this government is clear that we would welcome moves that facilitate a more normal system at Stormont that allows for formal opposition, so long as a way can be found to do this which is consistent with power sharing and inclusivity.
But we also believe that if or how this happens really has to be primarily for parties in the Assembly to take forward, not least because it is so firmly within the Assembly’s competence to deal with those matters that might characterise an opposition, such as speaking rights, financial assistance and committee chairmanships.”
So at the moment the British Government would be quite happy for the Stormont regime to have parties outside Government if this was accepted by these parties, if it was voluntary. No longer is this anathema, no longer is such a suggestion the antithesis of what the new arrangements are about. Now this is both a viable and even preferred destination.
But of course it has to be voluntary. Since having the nationalists in opposition is the primary objective of unionism such a policy stance is not so much a disinterested, absent-minded meandering on possible future directions as an incentive for unionism to get nationalists, or at least Sinn Féin, out of Government, “voluntarily”.
This is not actually the preferred British solution but it is testimony to how far it will go to keep unionism inside the existing deal that it floats ideas that while mollifying unionism actually increase instability.
That it only undermines the deal more and more by emboldening unionism and feeding its triumphalist agenda demonstrates only the continuing contradictions within the imperialist settlement – continuation of a sectarian state and sectarian political arrangements while hoping that this sectarianism can be made innocuous or at least reduced to an acceptable level, just as there used to be an “acceptable level of violence.”
So the incentive for unionism is to continue not to work the existing institutions while seeming to maintain a modicum of good faith, obstruct and provoke Sinn Féin as much as it can without damaging itself and hope that the sheer impossibility of Sinn Féin putting up with its obvious powerlessness gets the right reaction.
Unfortunately for them it is perfectly obvious that Sinn Féin will cling to the Stormont regime like grim death with no humiliation too embarrassing and no rebuke too severe for it to walk away. Sinn Féin will hold on to the appearance of power even when this appearance has gone.
But if clinging to the trappings of office becomes the main objective the point of actually having it – making changes – grows ever less important. Being in office in the North is important for Sinn Féin getting into office in the South and it believes that it being in office in both Irish states on the centenary of 1916 will be a powerful symbol.
Indeed it will. It will symbolise that the party has realised its strategy but that this strategy is ultimately a failure. A Sinn Féin in government in both partitioned states will still leave both partitioned states in place. Sinn Féin will simply sit over both. Should it stay in office the sight of it doing so will prove no more remarkable than the sight of Sinn Féin toasting the Queen of Great Britain.
How quickly can illusions be shattered. Fresh from congratulating themselves and being congratulated by the chattering classes for its wearing of white tails and standing for “God save the Queen” the acceptance of the privileges of the British monarchy is rammed home by her state exercising its powers as it sees fit.
Why toasting the symbol of oppression should lessen this oppression or limit its exercise can nowhere be explained by Sinn Féin. When one swallows the toast there can be little complaint when one has to swallow a whole lot more.
Whatever the outcome of Adams’ arrest the whole exercise is a brutal demonstration of Sinn Féin failure and it will cost it in the long run. The grounds for creation of an alternative are clearer but unfortunately there is no sign yet that any such alternative is arising or has some progressive working class content.