30th March 2003
Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2003
Gerry Kelly MLA speaking on Policing
British policing in Ireland, and in particular in the North of Ireland, has historically been an instrument of political repression, terror and counter-revolution. The RUC was established as a political police force, the paramilitary wing of unionism and it enthusiastically fulfilled these remits for its entire existence. In the 70's the British Government remoulded the RUC as the principal military cutting edge against resistance to British rule.
The experience of Irish nationalists and republicans at their hands has been one of sectarian hostility and conflict. That experience has continued to this day with the PSNI on the city streets and rural areas of the six counties.
This history made the RUC an issue for political campaigning and, as a consequence, for negotiations when they began.
Policing, and policing structures, however, have never been an arena of struggle for republicans. We were abundantly clear about what we were opposed to. We still are. But beyond calling for an end to the RUC and formulating the principles of an acceptable police service we did not address the issue. Sinn Fein's strategy of negotiations changed that. Before the Good Friday Agreement negotiations we brought the demand that the RUC should be disbanded into the process creating, for the first time in the history of the 6 county state, the potential to undermine the political and sectarian character of policing in the north and to deliver progressive and radical change.
The potential to radically affect policing was thus opened up by republicans in the negotiations leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. This continued into the period of the deliberations of the Patten Commission and since then in the repeated bouts of negotiations to see the Good Friday Agreement implemented in full.
But we are not naïve people.
Of course the Patten Recommendations were never going to be adequate from an Irish republican perspective. By definition that requires a national police service subject to democratic accountability in a politically independent all-Ireland state. But the developments during the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement and since have opened up the issue of policing as a new arena of struggle for republicans; and as a potential site of struggle which serves the achievement of national and democratic objectives. And that means not only seeking to achieve a police service and policing which is acceptable to the community as a whole. But also, denying the opponents of change the blunt instrument of oppression they have used for generations to prevent change and maintain the status quo.
These objectives are reflected in the reality that we have made policing, and the related issue of criminal justice, key elements in our negotiations with the British government. But that is only part of the picture. At many other levels, republicans have engaged, instinctively in this new area of struggle. Street protests and demonstrations, white-line pickets, demands for inquiries into the activities of the RUC and the Special Branch, lobbying and campaigning are all part of this. A very important manifestation of republican involvement in this arena of struggle was the widespread engagement by our community with the Patten Commission, an engagement which undoubtedly helped shape and radicalise the Patten Report. For it is the community, the people, which must be and will be the judge and custodian of what is acceptable in a police service.
Patten did not go far enough for us. That is one reason why we have put the issue of the transfer of policing and justice at the centre of the political agenda.
But we recognised that, if implemented in full, Patten could begin a process of change with the potential to fundamentally and irreversibly change the nature and composition of policing in the north. For this reason, the Brit securocrats, the Unionist Parties, the RUC itself, particularly the Special Branch, have railed against Patten and have attempted to hollow out the proposals. For the very same reason, we have demanded the full and time framed implementation of the Patten recommendations.
We identified what we needed, a police service that is:
- Representative of the whole community
- Accountable to the whole community
- Free from Partisan political control
- Civic in nature
- And Human Rights centred.
Negotiations on policing have been a critical focus for Sinn Fein. While we continued to pursue the agenda of radical change, others set their sights too low, settled too soon and for too little.
The Mandelson Police Bill in May 2000 deliberately gutted the Patten recommendations. The SDLP astonishingly voted for this Bill when it was introduced into Westminster. They then abstained when the second vote was taken some weeks later.
Their confusion on the issue of policing didn't end there.
The SDLP told us before Weston Park that getting new policing legislation was not possible. Sinn Fein pressed ahead until we got such a commitment. During the Weston Park negotiations the British Government publicised their intentions for new legislation. The substance of this legislation was not sufficient to undo the damage done by the Mandelson Bill - but we acknowledged it as movement in the right direction.
The SDLP immediately claimed credit for legislation which they had said was not possible and on that basis they signed on for inadequate policing arrangements which fell short of what is needed. In line with this they adjusted their message. Now they said new legislation was not necessary. That was perhaps inevitable given their decision to support the British position.
But it was a mistake. The Irish government's support for that position was a mistake. More importantly it was a damaging mistake. It undermined and fractured the nationalist and democratic unity which had existed on this touchstone issue.
And for almost two years now the most common refrain of British Government representatives in meetings with Sinn Fein has been to tell us that the SDLP do not want additional legislation and are opposed to it.
But republicans refused to be pressurised or demotivated. We held our nerve. We demanded further necessary change, including legislative change, and we entered the current negotiations with a comprehensive agenda for change across a range of issues, including policing and justice, as Martin McGuinness outlined.
And in this negotiation we have made further progress. Some of the outstanding issues have been dealt with and, if the British government fulfils its commitments these will become clearer in the near future. In particular we want to see movement on the issues of plastic bullets, representativeness and the Special Branch. One of the key issues, as I outlined earlier, is the transfer of powers on policing and justice from the British government and the British Secretary of State to the Assembly and Executive in the north and consequently to the all-Ireland Ministerial Council. It is critical that we wrest power and control from the British securocrats in London. It is critical, as part of our effort to achieve democratic accountability and acceptability by the community as a whole, that powers in these areas are transferred to the new political institutions. Part of doing away with generations of bad policing is to centre control of policing on the island of Ireland.
So where does all of this leave us?
Well let's be clear, one of our jobs, as a political party, is to achieve a new beginning to policing and justice. We have made progress. Be in no doubt about that. We have brought the British Government slowly but surely back towards Patten. We have put the issue of transfer of Policing and Justice at the centre of the political agenda. That is, policing, under local democratic control, to be shaped as a community service and not a tool of oppression and sectarianism.
Republicans are not against policing. In fact, those who have suffered from and continue to suffer from bad policing want proper policing more than anyone else does. That includes me, it includes the parents of the Holy Cross children, the residents of Short Strand, Whitewell, Alliance Avenue, Newlodge, Limestone Road, sex crime victims, drugs victims, car-crime victims and all the others who want a better way of life. It may not be on your television screens but loyalist attacks continue and blind eye and collusion policies continue also.
The unionist population may be apprehensive about the loss of their police force. But if we are to be honest, republicans too are nervous about the potential of achieving a new beginning to policing. The more we achieve the more nervous activists get. It is a huge issue for us. As big an issue as the GFA itself. The party president made clear yesterday that no decision has been taken to support the current policing arrangements by the out-going Ard Comhairle. Such a decision will only be taken by a specially convened Ard Fheis.
We are not yet in a position to call such an Ard Fheis because we have not yet achieved the threshold for a new beginning to policing. The vexed issue of policing is a work-in-progress (an unfolding negotiation). But the debate has already commenced in the schools, living rooms, workplaces and places of recreation and that is a good thing. Policing is a critical arena of struggle for republicans. We have made it so.
Gerry Adams said yesterday that there will be no sudden announcement of a special Ard Fheis. If we get to that point there will be a position paper for discussion and debate. This is an issue sits deep in the soul - especially with those still suffering from the actions of the PSNI. And, in facing into this issue, we, as political activists must continue to think strategically, debate strategically and decide strategically what is best for our party, for our struggle and, ultimately, for our people and our future.
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