The DUP’s rejection of the transfer of policing and justice powers to the Assembly has exposed yet again the vacuous claims of Sinn Fein for the St Andrews Agreement. We were told that St Andrews laid down a firm timetable for the devolution of these powers by May 2008. However, when Gordon Brown and Bertie Ahern recently made an appeal for movement on this issue, it provoked a fierce rejection from the DUP.
Senior members of the party lined up to denounce the proposal. Peter Robinson insisted the DUP had never signed up to a target for the transfer of policing and justice powers. He said that such a move would only happen when there was “the necessary support within the community”. Nigel Dodds said the issue was "not on the agenda". These views were echoed by DUP leader and First Minister Ian Paisley. He said that he had “absolutely no intention of bringing such a proposal to the Assembly as the necessary conditions do not exist." He didn’t detail the conditions, but mentioned the disbandment of the “IRA/Sinn Fein army council” and also the need for financial support from the British Treasury. However, the fundamental condition he laid down was the need for confidence within the unionist community.
The essential message from the DUP was that if unionists were uneasy at the prospect of nationalists having any role (no matter how minor) in administering the police and judiciary in the north it won’t happen. This is basically a reasserting of the unionist veto, albeit dressed up in the language of consensus. Paisley also denied that his party had agreed this at St Andrews. He said that it was “not our idea and we never agreed to it."
Not that the DUP leader has to worry about pressure from the British or Irish governments. Their appeal on the transfer of powers was extremely week. They merely said they believed “the time is right” for such a move, and that they stood “ready to help the political parties”. No hint of coercion or pressure here. Indeed, after the negative response from the DUP, they drew back from their timid proposal. A spokesman for the Irish Government acknowledged that the deadline was not likely to be met and “would accept that there may be some slippage.”
Sinn Fein were left floundering by all this. Gerry Adams made the astonishing claim, particularly in the light of the statements from their leadership, that the “DUP has agreed with the broad principles of all of these matters”. For him it was “only a matter of timing”, although he wasn’t prepared to set a time frame; presumably this is down the DUP. Sinn Fein’s policing spokesperson Alex Maskey said the party was “working very much with a mind that the transfer of policing and justice will happen by the May time-frame, and that is an agreement.”
The contrast of such statements to reality is stark. It could be described as a state of denial. But Sinn Fein can do little else, as to recognise the reality of the situation would be to admit complete failure. We are witnessing the same process we had with the Belfast Agreement. Sinn Fein in the role of the faithful defenders of a settlement they insist is being implemented, while the unionists, with the endorsement of the British and Irish Governments, pick it apart and bring it down. This is happening even more quickly with the St Andrews Agreement as it was pretty threadbare to begin with. The few gestures towards nationalists, such as the Irish Language Act and the devolution of justice and policing powers, have been junked already.