One for all, or one for some?

11 January 2007

Only a graduate in criminology or a spook-watcher could claim to understand the full import of yesterday's statement by Tony Blair on the role of MI5 in future policing structures here.

What's clear is that the British have conceded Sinn Féin's demand that a Chinese wall be built between MI5 and their new spook palace in Holywood and the PSNI in their Knock headquarters.


Fears expresssed by the SDLP that divorcing MI5 from PSNI oversight structures makes the potential for meddling by the intelligence services greater deserve a full airing. However, one suspects that, having signed up to the PSNI from day one only to see the British continue to make reforms, the minority nationalist party is more interested in out-Sinn Féining Sinn Féin than in getting this issue right.

A similar exercise is afoot in the unionist community where the hapless UUP is making itself a laughing stock by trying to be more extreme than the DUP in its response to every political development.

Ultimately, MI5 remains a treacherous and murderous body which will be treated with distrust and suspicion by nationalists.

Its role in the North over the past two generations has been uniformly negative and it can have no role to play in building the peace.

However, the focus needs to remain on PSNI reform rather than the neutralisation, important as that is, of MI5.

The evidence to date is that the PSNI is a force in process of reform.

The slow pace of that reform is a matter of grave concern to nationalists who look aghast at former RUC members rising to prominence with the new force.

Indeed, given that the RUC was regarded by nationalists as a policing obscenity, it shows great forebearance on the part of Sinn Féin and the SDLP that they are willing to accept the reality of former RUC troops within the PSNI. The task before nationalist leaders is to push forward reform within the PSNI by getting the force to face up to its deep-seated and institutionalised sectarianism.

This is seen in the flying of union flags and the sporting of poppies — while there is no similar show of tricolours or Easter lilies — and in the attempts of PSNI spinmeisters to pretend that the reforms promised by Patten have been delivered.

Far from it.

Patten identified the core policing crisis here: unionists regarded the police as their state militia tasked with defending the union with Britain; nationalists regarded the police as a weapon of oppression.

The DUP and much of the media remain in denial about that key fact, but shifting those perceptions to ensure the police are seen as a service for all rather than a force for some is the crucial challenge which lies ahead.

The vox pop in the Andersonstown News on Monday showed the high levels of distrust and antipathy which nationalists feel towards the PSNI. However, a majority of republicans are now convinced, as the SDLP has been for some time, that the battle for real policing needs to be taken into the bunkered corridors of Knock.

Those RUC diehards remaining within the PSNI and the DUP no-men have much more to fear from Sinn Féin going on the Policing Board than nationalists do.