At an extraordinary Ard Fheis (congress) of Sinn Fein held in Dublin on January 28, delegates voted overwhelmingly to endorse the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), long known for its discriminatory and violent practices towards the Irish republican movement and Northern Ireland Catholics. About 90% of the 982 delegates at the congress accepted the motion put forward by Sinn Fein's Ard Chomhairle (national executive), paving the way for a devolution of power to the Northern Ireland Assembly as outlined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
The vote means that Sinn Fein has fulfilled its obligations under the October 2006 St Andrew's Agreement, which resulted from British- and Irish-sponsored negotiations between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Ian Paisley. March 26 was the date set for the change from direct British rule to a power-sharing Belfast-based executive, with Paisley as first minister and leading Sinn Fein member Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister. Northern Ireland Assembly elections are planned for March 7.
The key condition of the accord for Sinn Fein was that it agree to end its historic boycott of the PSNI; the ultra-loyalist DUP simply had to agree to share power with republicans. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach (prime minister) Bertie Ahern welcomed the news of the vote; however, while Paisley has responded with characteristically gloating claims that Sinn Fein was forced to capitulate to the DUP, he has not yet given an assurance that the power-sharing process will go ahead smoothly.
The decision on endorsing the PSNI has been met with a mixed response by republicans. While many viewed the decision as a way to critically engage with the police force in order to depoliticise it, and a crucial step in moving the "peace process" forward, others viewed the decision with dismay. Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was met with cries of "traitor!" as he entered the Ard Fheis, and Ogra Shinn Fein (Sinn Fein's youth wing) voted against the proposal, putting forward an alternative plan for a decentralised and accountable municipality-based civic police force.
Ogra Shinn Fein leader Barry McGolgan said in the lead-up to the Ard Fheis that the youth wing "has always opposed the brutal, sectarian state militia that passed for a police force in the North. It was Ogra who spearheaded the 'Disband the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary, as the PSNI was called until 2001] campaign, it was Ogra who called on young people not to join a repackaged RUC — the PSNI — and it was Ogra who last year were shouting from the rooftops, literally, to 'smash political policing'." However, Ogra stated that it would respect the decision of the Ard Fheis.
The motion commits the party to supporting the police force and criminal justice system for the first time in Irish history. British intelligence agency MI5 will be "separated" from the civic police force, which it has been involved in for decades, but will remain active in Northern Ireland, and plastic bullets will not be banned. Sinn Fein stated that it had won a "victory" in the form of a commitment from the PSNI that it "would not be used for the purpose of public order/crowd control".
The endorsement of the PSNI comes as a police ombudsman report released on January 22 revealed evidence of police collusion with loyalist paramilitaries, including allowing "informants" to get away with the murder of republican activists. The three-and-a-half-year investigation into collusion between the Special Branch of the RUC and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) between 1991 and 2003 found that police informants were linked to 10 murders, 10 attempted murders, the bombing of Sinn Fein's Monaghan office in the Republic of Ireland, 10 "punishment" shootings and many more crimes including drug-dealing and extortion.
The report, commissioned following the 1997 death of 22-year-old Raymond McCord Junior, who was beaten to death by UVF thugs, confirmed what most republicans and Northern Ireland Catholics already knew about the deep and longstanding collaboration between the RUC and loyalist paramilitaries. Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan said that while it would be easy to blame the junior officers involved in the collusion, "they could not have operated as they did without the knowledge and support at the highest levels of the RUC and the PSNI".
The Sinn Fein leadership claims that supporting the PSNI will provide the means to transform the body into a non-partisan civic force. Yet in response to the call for endorsing the force last year, Patricia Campbell, a republican activist and president of the Independent Workers' Union, told the July August 2006 edition of Against the Current, "This is the RUC that smashed into our homes, harassed us, tortured us, waged war against us. Now republicans are being encouraged to join the 'new' RUC ... The Palestinians have already had to swallow that bitter pill, they have witnessed the same thing."
Former Provisional Irish Republican Army prisoner and Sinn Fein member Gerry McGeough rejected the policing decision and announced that he would stand against Sinn Fein in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in the March 7 elections. The Ireland Online news service reported on January 31 that McGeough said regardless of what Sinn Fein did, "it would not satisfy the insatiable demands of the DUP".
"Sinn Fein, by endorsing the Crown forces, has taken the united Ireland agenda out of the equation ... What we are witnessing now is the ongoing capitulation of Sinn Fein, who have no option but to keep dancing to the tune of the DUP and the British government."