The political institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 hang by a thread. The historic agreement which internationally stands as a beacon of hope for efforts to advance conflict resolution processes in other trouble spots around the world, is now at the point of collapse. Of the many crises faced since the Agreement was achieved over 17 years ago this is probably the most dangerous, both because of its contrived nature and because the issues at its core should not be matters for the politicians and political institutions but for the police.
It is now clear after the arrest and then release of Bobby Storey last week that the grave concerns Sinn Féin has expressed about recent events; how they occurred, and how they were subsequently handled, are entirely justified. As Bobby pointed out in his press conference on Sunday; “The PSNI had no basis for arresting me. At no time during my detention did the police present a shred of evidence or intelligence, which in either my opinion or the opinion of my solicitor, warranted my arrest. Questions must be asked about the timing and nature of my wrongful arrest.”
It is also important to note that the British Secretary of State knew two days before his arrest that Bobby was to be lifted by the PSNI. Some in the media were briefed also, as were some unionist politicians.
The question that must be asked is whose agenda is being served by this crisis and by the spin and the arrests. It is certainly not Sinn Féin’s. It is also now obvious that the Ulster Unionist Party has sought to exploit these murders for very narrow party political reasons.
The DUP’s electoral pact with the UUP during the Westminster election, which saw the UUP take Fermanagh South Tyrone and the DUP’s south Antrim seat, has emboldened that party. Afraid of being gobbled up by the DUP or Jim Allister’s TUV, the UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has embarked on a political strategy to present his party as effective in challenging republicans and the DUP as impotent. Hence this contrived crisis. Thus far Nesbitt has succeeded even though there have been extraordinary moments of incoherence, contradictions and confusion during his contribution to debates on recent news programmes.
Sinn Féin’s position was well articulated by Bobby Storey on Sunday during his press conference. ‘The IRA is gone, stood down. It’s not coming back. The only republican organisation is Sinn Féin. The only republican leadership is the Sinn Féin leadership.’
It is important also to remember that there are other matters tied up in this crisis. These include the absence of a workable budget, outstanding issues arising from the Good Friday and other agreements, including Acht na Gaeilge, a Bill of Rights and the failure to implement the Stormont House Agreement.
The threat by the British Secretary of State that she will legislate on welfare matters is not helpful. It is however typical of the approach of this British government to the process. For almost five years it disconnected from the agreement. So too did the Irish government. As co-equal guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement their responsibility is to uphold its integrity and implement it in full.
The Taoiseach needs to make the north a priority. Over the last few years he has virtually abandoned his responsibilities. It is a reality that clumsy interventions at times of crisis are no substitute for long-term engagement and the strategic consistency which is what is required.
For our part Sinn Féin will respond to all of these events in a calm and reasonable manner. We refuse to kneejerk. Sinn Féin will also engage in any talks in good faith and determined to find resolutions and agreement on all outstanding matters. But We will not accept or tolerate a situation in which the democratic rights of our electorate are not recognised and valued on the same basis as those of other parties.
Nor will be lectured to by unionist parties who turn a blind eye to loyalist violence and who work with loyalist paramilitary groups in pursuit of mutually agreed political objectives – like getting sectarian marches through nationalist areas.
The unionist parties’ attitude to the murders of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan in Belfast and to the recent revelations about the sell-off of NAMAs northern loan book for a third of its value of £4.5 billion, as well as allegations that a senior politician in the north was to benefit from this, are all evidence of their ad hoc attitude to the political institutions.
Sinn Féin could have decided to walk away from the Executive over the NAMA issue. We didn’t. We asserted the primacy of due process and the need for these very serious allegations of political corruption to be fully investigated by the relevant Assembly and policing agencies.
The negative unionist approach comes from its difficulties in coming to terms with the new political dispensation. They want to have political power on their own terms and not on the basis of equality, as set out in a series of agreements. Pandering by both governments to Unionism has reinforced this tendency.
It is obvious that the manner in which the DUP and the UUP are treating the institutions is seriously damaging public confidence in politics. In the longer term Unionism will be freed and liberated by the ending of partition and the union. These are the causes of the dysfunctionality which regularly surfaces in the political institutions and the contradictions between the rhetoric of unionist leaders and their actions.
In the immediate short term it is obvious that the parties in the North and the two Governments need to live up to our obligations and to do the work we are well paid to do. A starting point should be to support the police in their work.
The police for their part also have questions to answer but that too should be done in the appropriate way and through the appropriate accountability mechanism. Police should be above politics. It has no place in the political processes.