Stormont talks are doomed to failure unless parties find room for manoeuvre
Sinn Fein backs Lord Morrow's Bill on people trafficking, but opposes the law enforcement super-agency created to combat it. Along with welfare reform, just another example of the party's double standards. Brian Rowan reports
It has become another trench on the political battleground: the fight over the operational role of the new National Crime Agency (NCA) in Northern Ireland.
And the arguments continued to play out in a DUP Opposition Day debate in Parliament on Wednesday.
On its homepage, the NCA is described as "a new crime-fighting agency with national and international reach".
And it has "the mandate and powers to work in partnership with other law-enforcement organisations to bring the full weight of the law to bear in cutting serious and organised crime."
Sinn Fein and SDLP concerns are about accountability mechanisms. But unionists argue that these matters have been settled to the satisfaction of the police.
If fully operational here, NCA officers would have the powers of a police constable, could conduct surveillance operations and run informers and agents. The agency would also be responsible for recovering assets from criminals and clamping down on people trafficking.
But, as this accountability battle continues, a senior police source described "a complete chasm in civil recovery" - meaning the ability to seize criminal assets.
In the debate in parliament, we heard the DUP argument that the accountability concerns have been addressed. And, outside the political frame, the urgent need for agreement is being emphasised.
The academic Dr Jonny Byrne specialises in policing: "In terms of the debate around the operational capacity of the NCA, one could argue that the risks to society outweigh the political arguments," he said.
"It is absolutely essential that we have workable mechanisms to tackle organised crime.
"Therefore, it should not be beyond our politicians' remit to negotiate an agreed formula that ensures that the Chief Constable and the Policing Board are cited on NCA matters in Northern Ireland."
And, within policing, there is a view that this has now been achieved; that accountability concerns have been addressed, so some of the political "shouting" is questioned.
Three points are made:
• The NCA can only operate in Northern Ireland with the approval of Chief Constable George Hamilton;
• That he will have "full visibility" of operations and activity, including covert activity;
• And, if the agency is operating on his patch with the Chief Constable's agreement, then he is accountable to the Policing Board.
"We don't want, or need, them doing routine operations here," a senior police source commented.
But, in the absence of agreement on full operational capacity, there are times when the PSNI is having to reprioritise resources to cover NCA tasks. The "international reach" of the agency in combating organised crime, such as drugs and human trafficking, is also seen as essential.
Yesterday, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson argued that criminals see Northern Ireland as "an open back door into the UK", because of this gap in NCA operations.
The Ulster Unionists have told the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, that this issue and stand-off should be part of the current inter-party talks.
And unionist negotiator Tom Elliott argues there will be "much more accountability with the NCA" than there was with the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA).
But, in the continuing commentary from Sinn Fein and the SDLP, you still hear the argument that there is more to be done and agreed.
So, this issue may well become part of an already cluttered talks agenda, on the same page with budgets and welfare reform, the workings of the Executive and Assembly, flags, parades and the past, and outstanding agreements.
And, as we watch from the sidelines, this talks agenda is becoming a kind of spaghetti junction, with direction and route far from clear.
In its use of absolute language, where is the room for manoeuvre for Sinn Fein on welfare reform, this line it says it "will not cross"?
We hear in the public wordplays and in the quiet whisperings how working relationships are breaking down.
The DUP believes, on welfare reform, that Martin McGuinness was overruled by Gerry Adams, because of Sinn Fein's interests and focus in the south.
And, on the opposite side of the coin, republicans have all but given up on Peter Robinson's ability to deliver on agreements. So, this is all part of what is breaking down, part of what has prompted the description of Stormont as not being fit for purpose, being untenable and unsustainable.
The primary focus of the current talks, which some believe haven't yet properly begun, is on budgetary and financial issues including welfare reform.
And that high jump will have to be cleared if there is any prospect of getting other issues such as the NCA and the past out of their different trenches.
In the political storm that is the Mairia Cahill case, Gerry Adams wrote a few lines in his blog last Sunday that raise serious questions about how the past can ever be answered.
"Mairia alleges she was raped and that the IRA conducted an investigation into this," Adams wrote.
"The IRA has long since left the scene, so there is no corporate way of verifying this, but it must be pointed out that this allegation was subject to a police investigation [and] charges were brought against some republicans who strenuously denied Mairia's allegations.
"They insist they tried to help her. They were all acquitted by the court."
The suspected IRA member accused of rape was acquitted of criminal charges in court and charges were dropped against those allegedly involved in the IRA investigation.
But the line that jumped out of that Adams blog was that the IRA had long left the scene and there was "no corporate way of verifying" if an IRA investigation had been conducted.
What does that mean in terms of the many unanswered questions of the past; the bombs and bullets of a decades-long conflict? Is Adams suggesting that, organisationally, the IRA is no longer in a position to respond to questions?
And does it mean that the IRA no longer has to answer in a way that is still expected of others?
A process on the past, with different rules for the different sides, is pointless. It means different standards and, for some, a way or a route away from awkward questions and ugly truths. You aren't going to get political agreement on that type of process.
So, from all the sides - republican, loyalist, governments, police, Army and intelligence services - there needs to be an understanding of participation and information-sharing before any legacy commission is established.
Can these talks work? Will they work?
Just think about how difficult it will be resolve one of the issues and then remind yourself how many there are on this particular agenda.