Viewpoint: Policing breakthrough for Sinn Fein
Another milestone has been passed with Sinn Fein councillors in Magherafelt taking their places for the first time on a district policing partnership. It is one thing sitting on the main Policing Board, as three Sinn Fein MLAs have been doing for the past six months, and another engaging with PSNI officers in a local forum.
Hopefully Magherafelt is just the first of many towns where elected republicans will accept their responsibility to play their part in achieving better policing. There has never been any doubt that people want a responsive policing service, but old attitudes towards the RUC - and, in years gone by, the RIC - have prevented a proper dialogue. The DPP move should change all that.
Nevertheless it has to be admitted that there are elements in both the nationalist and unionist communities who will be unhappy with the involvement of such well-known republicans. Peter Bateson, the vice-chair of the council, was released under the Good Friday Agreement, having served seven years of a 25-year sentence for conspiracy to murder members of the security forces, and Ian Milne, council chairman, served 17 years in jail.
They will be under pressure from dissident republicans, who have attacked SDLP members of other DPPs, to show they have not surrendered their principles and are taking seriously their pledge to hold the police to account. In their defence, another Sinn Fein colleague, Sean McPeake, said they want to play a constructive role, but will not shy away from challenging or criticising policing decisions.
Unionists are entitled to be sceptical about the role that Sinn Fein members on DPPs will play until there is evidence that they are looking to the future rather than the past. Ominously, Mr McPeake, who is Sinn Fein's Elected Representatives' co-ordinator, wants to be a voice for communities who have experienced "only bad policing". In his new capacity, however, he looks to the PSNI to arrest those responsible for criminality and anti-social behaviour - "and take them off the streets if need be" .
Anywhere else, it would go without saying that elected representatives would support the police but here Sinn Fein's participation in DPPs is rightly regarded as a significant breakthrough. The Patten reforms of policing have been highly controversial, reducing numbers while discriminating in favour of Roman Catholic recruits, but they have achieved a level of general approval never previously seen in Northern Ireland.
Meetings of the local police commanders with elected representatives in DPPs can only help to open minds to a new form of accountable policing, putting old histories of antagonism firmly in the past. It is part of the process of normalisation taking place at every level of society, cementing the peace and providing a lead for Stormont politicians to follow.