Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 26 May 2016

Ed Curran: Why Robinson is right to step back from a deal he cannot sell

Published 26/10/2009

Peter Robinson is correct to be concerned about the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. This is one of those defining issues which illustrate the gap in understanding between unionists and nationalists.

I could go back 30 years and more and produce more examples of how nationalists and the British and Irish governments pushed unionist leaders into making deals they could not sell to their side of the electorate.

First off, there was the Sunningdale Agreement of 1973 when the nationalist side insisted on a Council of Ireland, which the dogs in the street in those days knew was a step too far for the general unionist population. Result: power-sharing collapsed and we went back to worse than square one.

Then 1985, and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, signed by Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald over the heads of the unionist leadership of the day. 'This will not work,,' was the final line on the editorial in the Belfast Telegraph and how right that proved to be because, once again, the unionist population was left behind in the scramble to strike a deal between London and Dublin.

The past decade has taught all sides a lot more sense and injected a degree of patience in politics which before was missing. In fairness to the Democratic Unionist and Sinn Fein leadership, they bite their lips more often these days even if they are far from seeing eye-to-eye on many fundamental issues.

That's how responsible politicians should behave and the pity is that we spend half a lifetime waiting for that moment to arrive. If only in times past, one side had shown half the understanding of the other's difficulties, we might not have lost so many lives and collectively would have been much better off.

Why should we have some understanding of Peter Robinson's obvious tardiness to sign the dotted line and get the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the justice system under the control of the Stormont Executive? Why should unionists be so unhappy with the thought?

I think the answer is pretty obvious. Firstly, the transfer of policing and justice to Northern Ireland from Westminster represents a massive dismantlement of the Great Britain and Northern Ireland link. About the only aspect of government which I would consider on a higher plane would be granting Stormont the right to have control over the Inland Revenue and raise its own taxes.

This is a watershed moment for the constitution of the United Kingdom, devolving powers which rested last with attorneys general and ministers of home affairs up until 1972 when the parliament at Stormont was suspended. The difference then and now, of course, is that those powers are being restored into hands of a very different environment where Sinn Fein,at some point, could control the tiller.

I suspect that many in the judicial system are not too keen on the idea of either side being involved and remain quite comfortable with being controlled directly from London, thus ensuring a fairly stable oversight.

The attitude locally on policing is likely to be different, conditioned by the lack of community confidence in the current PSNI to deal with neighbourhood crime. Undoubtedly, the transfer of policing powers will be sold to us all on the basis that we can influence the PSNI in the future in a way that we couldn't in the past.

The second concern we should have on this issue rests on the ability of the Stormont Executive.

It has failed to date to agree on a number of important matters, most notably a resolution to the 11-plus debacle, so what confidence can we have that it will handle policing and justice?

The fact that neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein can field the minister responsible and that the Alliance leader David Ford is expected to be given the post tells us all what a hot potato could be on his plate.

The Executive is a lame duck administration because its coalition format means decisiveness is a dirty word. Peter Robinson recognised this in his recent comments calling for a weighted majority voting system at Stormont to replace the current mind-numbing inertia.

On policing and justice, he is right to be cautious because he is between a rock and a hard place. He and his party have nothing to gain, but a lot to lose if he has misjudged the mood of unionists on this issue. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have no such problems. They can hail the transfer of policing and justice as a huge victory for republicanism, an act of separation between London and Belfast.

None of us knows what the unionists think on their doorsteps, but it will be too late for the Democratic Unionist Party to find out at the polling stations next spring. I think someone in the media could do an enormous service if they were to conduct a simple opinion poll on this issue and confirm how people - particularly in the unionist community - feel. Failing that, I would hope the DUP are doing their own sampling.

So what if Peter Robinson calls it wrong? I think he won't, because he is too long in the political tooth to allow himself to be railroaded into a decision he and his party may live to regret. He is right to be cautious and the Shinners are right to keep giving him the 'time and space' to deliver.

My own view is that the transfer of policing and justice is no vote-catcher in the unionist community and an enormous attraction for nationalists. From past experience, that is no reason to rush a deal because everyone can be left with nothing.

Mr Robinson is right to seek the confidence of his community.

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