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Anti-social tail end will wag the Sinn Féin dog

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

On Monday Sinn Féin signed up to policing. The Republic is piloting 22 local authority joint policing committees, which will operate much like district policing partnerships north of the border. Sinn Féin justice spokesman Aengus

O Snodaigh TD attended the inaugural meeting of Dublin's new committee.

Far from approaching the exercise with scepticism, he was positively bubbling over with enthusiasm, even issuing a press release the day before.

'Dublin's joint policing committee could play an important role in tackling anti-social behaviour across the city,' it declared. The next morning he issued another press release advising residents to attend and also announcing a Sinn Féin 'door-to-door survey on anti-social behaviour'.

Mr O Snodaigh is a late convert to the cause of law and order. In 2004 two of his 'election workers' were jailed for possession of CS spray, balaclavas, walkie talkies, restraining tape, a sledgehammer and a list of drug dealers paying protection money to the IRA. Still, better late than never and if Sinn Féin can work with one partitionist police force it can certainly work with another.

In truth, every stated republican objection to policing was conceded years ago.

The Good Friday Agreement recognised partition, consent and the writ of British law. Sinn Féin did not actually sign the agreement but it has since claimed to own it so vociferously that it has no choice but to accept the consequences.

Endless republican lectures on the need for dialogue, compromise and "working the institutions" only underscore Sinn Féin's failure to apply this to the PSNI.

Serious outstanding issues do remain, not least the immunity of certain people from prosecution but these are arguments for engagement rather than huffing in the corner. Policing is only an obstacle for Sinn Féin because it dragged the issue out for political leverage.

Republicans who became permanently hung up on this temporary negotiating tactic have now outlived their usefulness. Some will abandon the party, which will be no loss to anyone. A handful will be so upset by Sinn Féin joining the PSNI payroll that they will defect to dissident groups and join the MI5 payroll but it seems apparent that most republicans are ready for a deal. The real policing problem Sinn Féin now faces is reconciling the expectations of its supporters to the philosophy of its activists.

Although we are used to thinking of Sinn Féin as a radical party, the Irish republican constituency itself is inherently conservative. Fianna Fail has understood this well for 80 years. Sinn Féin has ignored it for 30 years under the distraction of ethnic conflict.

Now a new conflict could emerge between Sinn Féin voters who want strict measures against low-level crime and Sinn Féin members who prefer to see the problem in terms of poverty, exclusion and the general victimhood of the culprit.

It is telling that Aengus O Snodaigh made such an issue of anti-social behaviour over his attendance at Monday's meeting.

This is a serious concern for Sinn Féin's voters, who are plagued by the youthful contempt for authority fostered by Sinn Féin's politics. But will more Sinn Féin politics really solve the problem?

Years of projects, schemes, funds and initiatives have had no measurable impact on anti-social behaviour at all.

Community Restorative Justice has been a total disaster. Tackling widespread delinquency requires a nice cop and a nasty cop. There must be community involvement and youth conferencing but there must also be constant patrolling and a credible prospect of lawful punishment. This will be an ideological minefield for a party that usually absolves the individual of all responsibility for anything.

It will also be fantastically expensive. What services is Sinn Féin prepared to cut from the assembly budget to deliver tougher law and order for republican communities?

If a 'policing precept' is added to taxes here, as it already is to council tax in England and Wales, then how much should the rates go up in Ballymurphy?

This minefield extends beyond the boundaries of the party itself. For example, there is a powerful public sector lobby in Northern Ireland against the use of anti-social behaviour orders.

The Human Rights Commission clearly intends to use its new powers under the St Andrews Agreement to demand the closure of Hydebank Young Offenders Centre. Will Sinn Féin ministers favour this liberal agenda over the far less liberal instincts of their own electorate?

The policing split republicans need to worry about is not between the devolutionists and the dissidents.

It is between the left and the right.

October 27, 2006

This article appeared first in the October 26, 2006 edition of the Irish News.

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