Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

How we made the special relationship look very ordinary

What a sad day for the cherished special relationship between Britain and the US, cultivated by Churchill and vaunted by Blair and Thatcher, that it should be reduced to the combined role of wet nurse and marriage guidance service to the uneasy alliance of Sinn Fein and DUP in the Executive.

The rest of the world must stand amazed at the inversion of priorities.

That Gordon Brown should spend hours and days in London, Belfast and New York wrangling over the details of constabulary pay and allowances, while the Afghan War, the economy and the political life of his Government hang in the balance is no less surprising than that the American Secretary of State should divert from nuclear disarmament and the crisis in the Middle East to spend a day in Belfast massaging egos.

The transfer of responsibility to the Assembly is the last piece of the policing structure recommended in the Patten Report 10 years ago.

Taking control of policing, however, also means being responsible for the budget.

And this is the first elephant in the room.

The other bigger and ultimately more damaging elephant in the room is the almost total lack of trust between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein suspect that there are elements within the DUP which do not want policing - or Sinn Fein. The party also fears that once financing has been successfully dealt with (as it appears to have been) the DUP will find another problem and another and another.

If they do, it is a negotiating tactic they have learned from Sinn Fein themselves, whose shopping lists and demands for clarification in the past tended to lengthen in the last critical days of many a negotiation.

There is the added problem that the Ulster Unionist Party is at best indifferent to the transfer on the matter of timing, and the SDLP is unhappy that the ministerial post arising should appear to have been gifted to the Alliance Party.

On the financial front, Peter Robinson has carried off a remarkable negotiating feat in getting Brown and the British treasury to move from a reputed opening bid of £400m over and above the current budget for policing and criminal justice, to a reported £800m.

The finances are complicated by the wish to hedge against uncertainty, the threat of latent disability claims and a renewal of the threat from dissident republicans.

Serving and former police have discovered post-traumatic stress, deafness and other occupational hazards, like soldiers in the Irish Army before them.

Claims, it appears, are falling in like autumn leaves, which could put a sizeable hole in any budget.

Sinn Fein need the transfer of policing in order to satisfy their own base support and to justify their decision to back the PSNI and to join the Policing Board.

Strong elements in the DUP, on the other hand, looking over their shoulder fearfully at Jim Allister and the Traditional Unionist Voice, will go out of their way to nullify any such influence.

In doing so, they show a distinct, and potentially damaging lack of political imagination.

It is in everybody's interests that politics should be made to work - for DUP no less than for Sinn Fein.

The best answer to the dissident threat (which is only too real) is not increased expenditure on policing, but that politics should be shown to have worked.

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