'Dark side' of policing still a concern for republicans
Five years after voting to support the PSNI, Sinn Fein has unfinished business with the Chief Constable Matt Baggott, says Brian Rowan
Exactly five years ago, the IRA was meeting in secret session before a critical Sinn Fein vote on policing at a special ard fheis. And this, arguably, was the biggest republican decision of the peace process; a moment about trying to end an enemy relationship.
The IRA and the RUC were part of a decades-long war and the Sinn Fein vote was about support for the PSNI and the new policing structure, including the Policing Board.
And, in a wider frame, that weekend at the end of January 2007 stretched into the political negotiations; it removed the biggest barrier in the way of a Paisley- McGuinness deal at Stormont.
The IRA had ended its armed campaign and put weapons beyond use, but had it set its face against an endorsement of new-policing, it would have put McGuinness and Adams in an impossible corner.
And, so, the events and positive vote that weekend five years ago said louder than anything else that the war was really over.
This is the context and the importance of that moment. Sinn Fein was about to take its places on the Policing Board and, by May 2007, Paisley and McGuinness shared a Stormont stage with Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern to cheer on this new day and new era in our politics.
At that Sinn Fein ard fheis just a few months earlier, Gerry Kelly had argued that republicans could not leave "this fundamental arena" of policing to be "dominated by unionists"; "We especially cannot exclude ourselves," he argued.
Now, Kelly is on the inside, as a member of the Policing Board. But it does not mean the policing argument and debate is closed. It is not.
Today's republican relationship with policing has been defined in the sentence: "Sinn Fein unambiguously supports the PSNI, but its support is not unconditional."
That position has been articulated by the party's national chair, Declan Kearney, in the Belfast Telegraph by Kelly and then, a few days ago, by Jim Gibney in his weekly Irish News column.
The sentence tells us that something is wrong and points to urgent and unfinished business.
Kearney, Kelly and Gibney have all described a policing 'dark side' - residual traces of the past they fear could contaminate the present.
Their concerns are about intelligence and 'securocrat' practices; about the 'abuse and misuse' of agent-recruitment and use.
This is the stuff of an unseen world, part of which is occupied by MI5 in Holywood's Palace Barracks; a base and a presence that tells us that not all the wars are over.
And there is another problem issue: that of retired officers being rehired and the question of their accountability, or lack of it, within the new structures.
Five years later, these are today's battles. It is not an unravelling of republican support for policing, more a public articulation of the problem areas. And the commentary of Kearney, Kelly and Gibney is an attempt to draw Chief Constable Matt Baggott and his top team into a serious dialogue on these issues.
The dissident threat means a continuing intelligence need. But explanation is required when suspected agents are seen at play in republican communities.
At play in terms of articulating the thinking and strategy of armed dissidents, including those behind the killing of Constable Ronan Kerr. And at play pulling the strings in riotous confrontations with the PSNI.
This is a read-back into the so-called 'dirty war'. And inside the republican community, it leaves Sinn Fein vulnerable to those who will argue: I told you so.
So, this is not a row for the sake of being awkward. It is a serious attempt to engage Matt Baggott sooner rather than later.