A leading member of Sinn Fein, last Sunday, threatened that they will withdraw ministers from the Executive with, I can only conclude, the intention of collapsing the Assembly if everyone does not concede to their demand for the immediate devolution of policing and justice powers. In the absence of any statement of correction from Sinn Fein in the days that have followed I must make a working assumption that this is the official position of their party. I will be pleased if it proves to be otherwise.
Sinn Fein must recognise that the days when they could use the threat of terrorism to force the British government to meet their demands are gone. Gone are the days when they could rely on weak unionists to roll over and work to a republican agenda. Now they must gain cross-community support for any change and that requires the support of the DUP.
I have consistently argued that the system of government operating at Stormont is far from perfect. In the DUP’s 2007 manifesto we referred to it as representing a fair deal but not our final destination. Sinn Fein behaviour is reinforcing this argument.
For some time I have sought to have the Executive called together to deal with important outstanding business. I have cleared Executive papers in order for business to be presented to ministers — indeed I have approved sufficient work for several Executive meetings.
While Ministers can still work departmentally and within their delegated responsibilities, no new policy or direction can be given without Executive approval. There are many issues from all ministers which need to be considered by the Executive and indeed wider matters which traverse individual departmental responsibility and which need to be aired. Flooding, energy costs, the credit crunch, the safety of our citizens from attack and many other matters would have been raised if the Executive had been meeting.
When Ministers were appointed they made public and legally binding pledges which are not being fulfilled. This cannot continue. A meeting of the Executive has been scheduled for 18th September. If this meeting were not to take place it is self-evident that there would be serious consequences for the good government of Northern Ireland and indeed potentially for those who refuse to fulfil their legal obligations.
Let me deal with the inaccurate propaganda which is being disseminated by republicans about policing and justice. The St Andrews Agreement between the Government and the government of the Republic of Ireland neither bound nor required the DUP to accept the devolution of policing and justice nor did it impose any timetable for such devolution. It is clear that Sinn Fein has always known that no agreement was reached and that the DUP were working on the basis of the statement issued by the party at St Andrews.
The DUP does not believe there would be support for the devolution of policing and justice if Sinn Fein ministers were to have responsibility for any policing and justice function. Furthermore, it is clear that a Policing and Justice Minister could not be subject to the vagaries of an Executive which can be subject to the kind of behaviour we have recently witnessed.
It is to be regretted that the process agreed for consideration of these matters in a way that would have been transparent and open, with other parties in the Assembly being involved, is endangered by Sinn Fein threats. The DUP movement on such issues will not be hastened by the issuing of threats. The central component to allow movement is community confidence. However, the behaviour of Sinn Fein has undoubtedly damaged confidence and in so doing will hinder the speed of progress. More precisely, by virtue of the consequences of responding to such threats, the DUP will not further progress this matter in the absence of a properly functioning Executive.
It is our view that people do not want to go back to the bad old days and Sinn Fein must not allow itself to become the prisoner of those in the republican community who oppose progress. They should not be looking over their shoulder at dissidents but giving leadership and moving forward.
The DUP is impatient with the foot-dragging on ending the IRA Army Council and wants to see a greater flow of information to the police about those who were nurtured by the IRA but who now continue attacks under different labels. The move to democracy is an ongoing commitment and a continuing journey. It is not a move of convenience or a tactical step.