“Provided nobody’s playing games”

Following on from his interview with Dermot Ahern and yesterday with Gerry Adams, The Irish Times’ Frank Millar talks to Secretary of State for Wales and Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, primarily focussing on how absolute a deadline 24th November is but also touching on the policing issue. He doesn’t press Peter Hain as much as I expected, but the Secretary of State provided some additional comments on the issue to the NI Affairs Select Committee on Wednesday [transcript to appear later] – the Belfast Telegraph reports here.On the deadline and the political processing –

He says it can’t go on and on. But the DUP doesn’t believe him. If Dr Paisley or Peter Robinson declare in November “great progress made, not there yet, but getting there”, they don’t believe that Tony Blair would close it all down.

Mr Hain insists: “They couldn’t be more wrong. Whether it’s the DUP or the SDLP, they could not be more wrong. At midnight on November 24th the curtain comes down, the Assembly’s put on ice, the salaries will stop. In the late summer – if they don’t think we’re going to get an agreement, or they’re not willing, or don’t have confidence we can reach an agreement – I’ll be advising Assembly members then to tell their staff to find new jobs. They’ll also need to do something else in the summer and advise the landlords of their advice centres that they’re not going to be able to pay the rent. I don’t say that as a threat, because they themselves will bring the curtain down, not me, and the public won’t stand for millions and millions of pounds going to waste in this fashion.”

Then comes an interesting caveat: “If they go to one minute past midnight in the expectation that we’re going to blink, well we won’t blink first. Now, if they then decide voluntarily to go on the dole, sack their staff, close down their advice centres, and then come back to me after one month, two months, three months, six months, and say, ‘We think we got it wrong, now we’re ready to run it again’, well my door’s always open. But I’m not going to be chasing after them.”

Interestingly the issue of what happens after the deadline has been mentioned before.. the earlier Assembly is still, technically, in suspension

Frank Millar also suggests to Peter Hain that the increasing of powers available to the proposed larger, if fewer, councils lessens the threatened blow from his big stick approach –

It was the accidental loss of meaningful local government alongside the suspension of the Stormont parliament in 1972 which created what has long-since been described as Northern Ireland’s democratic deficit. And with the proposal for seven “super councils” Mr Hain might be said to be filling it. The DUP does not like the seven, but with proper levels of parliamentary representation, and their dominance of it, it might be democracy enough for the DUP.

“But you see that didn’t work in Scotland and it didn’t work in Wales,” counters Mr Hain. “And you didn’t have the bitter history in either of those two nations.”

Yet it might work for Northern Ireland, and for the unionists in particular, precisely because the bitter history creates an aversion to sharing power above a certain level.

Mr Hain is unconvinced: “I don’t think there is, I think there’s a problem of trust and a failure of leadership, and too much followership and not enough leadership, by all the parties by the way.”

And, once again, the policing issue gets an airing.. and the Secretary of State appears to step back somewhat from his earlier comments connecting exercising ministerial office and supporting the policing –

“I think Sinn Féin do need to put themselves on the road – and I think they have started off warily down this road – to co-operating with the police. I’m not saying, ‘Join the policing board tomorrow’. But there is a commitment they have given, which I’ll expect them to honour, that when we’ve got royal assent for the Bill devolving policing and justice, they then need to take positive moves to call a conference.They’ve promised that and I’m sure that they will.”

That’s the assent for the Bill, not the actual transfer of powers? “No, until you’ve got institutions to devolve to, you can’t devolve.” And the timetable for that? “Well it’s due to get royal assent by the summer recess, by the end of July.”

Mr Hain says he can’t be certain of the timing of any Sinn Féin ardfheis, and declines to speculate as to whether the party might actually be ready to join the board and endorse the PSNI in time for a November deal. He also stresses: “There’s a radical difference between trying to solve problems and difficult issues like policing, which is what we’re doing, and using those difficult issues to erect a hurdle to power-sharing. . . I agree with what Dermot Ahern said in The Irish Times on Tuesday, that there’s a danger here of continually shifting the goalposts.”

Yet he is also confident: “Provided nobody’s playing games, then it’s in Sinn Fein’s interest – since their declared objective is to get into government with the DUP and the others – to build trust and remove an excuse from unionists and everybody, because we all want them to co-operate with policing. It’s in their interests to remove that excuse which could act as a final obstacle.”

The SF president acknowledged that reality in his interview yesterday, but what’s interesting at this time is that both the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister and the Secretary of State are not publicly pressing the issue, despite what Peter Hain has said previously

Mr. Hain: On the hon. Gentleman’s point about criminality, it is now clear that the Provisional IRA – and, therefore, its political link, Sinn Fein – is now committed to stamping out criminality and paramilitary activity. The only logical, sustainable long-term position for anyone seeking to perform parliamentary legislative duties or exercise ministerial office is to support the police. We will be working on that and encouraging Sinn Fein to do that.

While talking to Frank Millar, Dermot Ahern stated that, while it wouldn’t be a pre-condition

“But I agree with people that it follows as night follows day that if parties are going to go into an executive there has to be an understanding that there is a move toward full acceptance of policing.”

On Wednesday Peter Hain spoke to the NI Affairs Select Committee, as the Belfast Telegraph reports

Peter Hain has rejected a DUP call to require Sinn Fein to support the police “as a pre-condition” for restoring the Assembly.

In sharp exchanges with the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, he warned: “Be careful not to erect a whole series of hurdles at the last minute.”

Making his last address to the Northern Ireland Select Committee MPs before the Assembly convenes next Monday, he said recent DUP and republican moves had made him optimistic about the prospects.

But Mr Wilson was “disturbed” at what he called Mr Hain’s “equivocation” on the policing issue.

“I’m not equivocating at all,” Mr Hain retorted. “The gap between us is not as wide as you say. I think Sinn Fein will rightly come under pressure to support the police. There is no good reason for them not to move on policing and I think they will.

“Now that the legislation (eventually transferring justice and police to the Assembly) has passed, they have no reason not to. It’s inconceivable in the medium term that ministers will not support the police.”

So that’s the medium term and the long term covered… as for the short term?.. and then there’s also the triple-lock part of that legislation..

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