An election now slated for March 7 has revived hopes of a more genuine reconciliation between Northern Ireland’s sectarian factions than the tentative one which has kept the British-ruled province relatively peaceful for much of the past decade. The catalyst for this change came from Sinn Féin, the predominantly Catholic political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), which in late January cast aside decades of suspicion and gave a vote of confidence (Irish Times) to Northern Ireland’s largely Protestant police force. Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Féin, the political wing of the IRA, urged support for the policing measure, arguing that the tainted and sectarian history of the provincial police force meant we “certainly cannot leave it to the British government” (Guardian). Last April, speaking at CFR, he said the reformed provincial police had “moved considerably along the Good Friday agreement road to a new beginning of policing.”
The vote revives hopes for establishing a power-sharing government in Belfast—a central goal of the 1998 Good Friday accord. Previous efforts at self-rule collapsed under the weight of mistrust between Sinn Féin and the largest unionist party, the Democratic Ulster Party (DUP), a predominantly Protestant movement that rejects any moves that might dilute British sovereignty in Northern Ireland.
Sinn Féin and other Catholics long viewed the Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland police force as an institution of British rule. A report (PDF) released on January 24 fanned those flames by alleging some officers in the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which policed Northern Ireland from 1922 to 2001, colluded with a violent “loyalist” terrorist group, the Ulster Volunteer Force, in murders and other attacks on Catholic nationalists. Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern called the findings “deeply disturbing” (Telegraph) and demanded follow-up investigations.
But Anglo-Irish efforts to revive Belfast’s power-sharing government survived. Under the latest plan, known as the St. Andrews agreement, the DUP pledged to consider governing in partnership with any party which showed real support for the provincial police. Assembly elections to create a new legislature have been set for March 7 (ElectionGuide), and polls indicate the DUP and Sinn Féin are likely to dominate. If all goes well, a new power-sharing government (NYT) could be formed as early as March 26.
History suggests things may not go smoothly, however. Sinn Féin made its backing for the police contingent both on power sharing being revived and on the DUP’s willingness to allow Northern Ireland’s courts, prisons, and other judicial bodies to be locally controlled (CBC) by May 2008. For its part, the DUP will not commit to either stipulation until it sees “concrete evidence” of a difference in Sinn Féin’s behavior toward the police. Both sides left plenty of ways to back out. Already, signs of discord have emerged (Belfast Telegraph).
Yet optimism spices editorials in the Irish and British media. Sinn Féin’s endorsement of the provincial police, until recently at war with the IRA, indicates the republican movement “has made a vast ideological transformation” (Times of London). It seems to have embraced a more practical approach to its goals, too. Paul Butler, a member of Sinn Féin, says Northern Ireland’s police “brutalized” him. However, he supported the police measure, explaining those “who want maximum change must be prepared for maximum risks” (WashPost).