“Today you have created the potential to change the political landscape on this island forever. You have created the opportunity to significantly advance our struggle.” So said Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who also used the word “historic” in his party congress speech – a term often overused in relation to Northern Ireland’s peace process. But this time it perfectly summed up the significance of his party’s vote on Sunday.
An overwhelming majority of the Republican party decided to give its support to Northern Ireland’s police service in a major step towards restoring the power-sharing assembly. During a six-hour debate, Sinn Fein’s deputy leader Martin McGuinness urged his party to defy its pro-British rivals. “They want a resounding ‘no.’ So, let us at this Ard Fheis give them what they fear most – a resounding Irish Republican ‘yes.’”
Since its creation in 1905, Sinn Fein has never recognised the legitimacy of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, as the province’s police service used to be known. It was considered a symbol of the British occupation and therefore biased towards Protestants.
As part of the Good Friday accord, the RUC changed its name to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. The pro-British DUP party insisted on this being necessary under the power-sharing agreement. But it was not the only condition. The militant IRA first had to give up its weapons. The terrorist group finally abandoned its armed struggle two years ago. As Sinn Fein itself pointed out the “province’s police force now needs to make strenuous efforts to earn the trust and confidence of nationalists and republicans.”
The PSNI is already facing charges after a report last week exposed alleged systemic corruption and collusion with loyalist paramilitary informers. Nothing should now stand in the way of the restoration of the power-sharing assembly. The British government has warned that if an election does not occur in March, Stormont will be dissolved indefinitely.