The North's Secretary of State Peter Hain today shifted the onus for restoring devolution in Northern Ireland onto Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionists as he praised Sinn Féin’s advance towards an historic endorsement of policing.
Even though the party leadership exposed itself to potential splits by agreeing to press ahead with a special conference to consider overturning a policy of opposition stretching back generations, London and Dublin believe the shift holds the key to securing power-sharing and finally achieving a lasting political settlement in the North.
With the DUP insisting it wanted to see proof of Sinn Féin’s unconditional support for Northern Ireland’s police service before agreeing to sit in a coalition government, Gerry Adams faced warnings that some republicans appalled by the strategy will stand against Sinn Féin in Assembly elections due in March.
But Mr Hain heralded the decision, after tense discussions in Dublin yesterday, to hold an Ard Fheis on policing on January 28.
He said: “This is very good news for everyone who has the interests of Northern Ireland at heart.
“By committing the republican movement to support for the police in the clear and unequivocal terms that it has, Sinn Féin has played its part in breaking the deadlock that has paralysed political progress in Northern Ireland.
“The St Andrews Agreement made it clear that a lasting settlement must be based on the twin pillars of support for police and justice by everyone and power sharing on a fair and equitable basis by everyone.
“Of course there must be delivery on both of these commitments and there is absolutely no reason why we should not be on course for the restoration of the Assembly and Executive on 26 March and the devolution of policing and justice by May 2008.”
Sinn Féin will now begin to consult grassroots members in a bid to head-off any damaging dissension or splits.
One former party election worker, Paul McGlinchey, claimed it was a step too far to back the police.
The brother of murdered INLA terrorist leader Dominic McGlinchey, vowed to be among the independent republicans running in up to 13 constituencies at the planned Stormont poll.
He told the BBC’s Politics Show: “Because there’s been a lack of consultation out in the republican areas among the ordinary republican voter on the policing issue, by me standing and other individuals standing like me we have given the republican people and the nationalist people that voted for Sinn Féin an opportunity to say to Sinn Féin we are not happy what you have done by signing up to policing.
Faced with possible discontent in some quarters, Sinn Féin will hold private and public meetings.
With the consultation set to include what Mr Adams described as victims of bad policing and patriots, open debates are also planned for town halls around Northern Ireland.
The move comes after his party’s Ard Chomhairle, the national executive, voted to hold an Extraordinary Ard Fheis where they will seek support for a motion asking rank-and-file members to back the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
After five-and-a-half hour debate where every member of the 56-strong body had a chance to speak, Mr Adams secured more than the required two thirds majority.
It represented a massive shift in policy for Sinn Féin and a radical change in republicanism.
Doubts that the conference would go ahead had grown following the DUP’s muted response to the original decision taken by the party executive last month.
Tony Blair welcomed the move, with his official spokesman saying it underlined the British Prime Minister’s view that devolution can happen by March 26 and devolution of policing powers by the following May.
As pressure switched to the DUP, the party stressed it was ready to make a positive response to any endorsement of the police service.
But Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP MP for Lagan Valley, added: “We have consistently made clear that it is essential for Sinn Féin to give unequivocal support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and to the courts.
“The words of the motion, if passed, must then be translated into effective action on the ground with clear evidence that Sinn Féin are encouraging local communities to co-operate with the Police and courts in tackling crime.
“The sooner Sinn Féin delivers on their obligations as spelt out at St Andrews, the sooner we can all move forward.”