A report into Special Branch officers' involvement with a loyalist paramilitary gang by the North's Police Ombudsman will make uncomfortable reading, Northern Secretary Peter Hain admitted today.
On the eve of the publication of the report on an Ulster Volunteer Force gang riddled with informers which carried out murders from its North Belfast powerbase, Mr Hain urged Sinn Féin and republicans to hold their nerve as they considered endorsing the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for the first time in their history.
Following concerns that the report could destabilise efforts to persuade Sinn Féin to support the PSNI at a special conference in Dublin next week, Mr. Hain said: "The report makes uncomfortable reading and will do especially for those in positions of responsibility in the police during the 1990s. There is no getting away from that.
"As for the timing of this, I would hope that republicans in the run up to their critical meeting at the Árd Fheis next weekend would take the advice of Gerry Adams that if they still have remaining concerns about policing, the best way to influence that is to sign up to supporting policing and the rule of law as a matter of fundamental principle.
"They should participate in the district Policing Partnerships as they are entitled to do and take their seats on the Policing Board as Sinn Féin representatives are entitled to do.
"That is how they can best answer the concerns raised in this report.
"In my view the Ombudsman report is devastating about the past and especially about the murder of Raymond McCord and other related murders.
"It is a devastating indictment of that period of policing in the 1990s but the PSNI has since come into being and policing has been radically transformed since then."
Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman Nuala O'Loan's report focuses not just on the murder of Raymond McCord Junior in 1997 at the hands of a UVF gang on the outskirts of Belfast, but covers other murders.
It is expected to be highly critical of how the police who are running agents in the gang handled their informers.
Mr Hain today would not be drawn on claims that the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland has decided not to prosecute police officers implicated in Mrs O'Loan's report.
Mr Hain was commenting as Sinn Féin continued with a series of week-long meetings across Northern Ireland in the run-up to its special conference.
Republicans backed meetings in Toome in Co Antrim and Galbally, Co Tyrone yesterday addressed by Mr Adams, the party’s MEP Bairbre de Brun and its policing spokesperson Gerry Kelly.
The party’s chief negotiator Martin McGuinness was due to take part in a meeting in Lurgan, Co Armagh today while Mr. Adams was due to address republicans in Crossmaglen in the south of the county before taking part in a public debate in Newcastle, Co Down.
During yesterday’s meetings, Mr Adams argued Sinn Féin’s support for the police in the North at this stage was the right thing for republicans to do and would advance the cause of a united Ireland.
He challenged critics of the Sinn Féin leadership to spell out publicly at the debates what their plans were for achieving a united Ireland.
In Galbally, the Sinn Féin leader was challenged from the floor by former party member and former IRA gun-runner, Gerry McGeough, who could be among a number of independent republican candidates who will challenge the party in the March Assembly election.
In Toome, some disaffected republicans opted not to take part in the public meeting, including Paul McGlinchey whose brother Sean was on the platform supporting Mr Adams.
Mr Hain said today he was hopeful the ingredients would be in place for a meaningful Assembly election if the 2,000 members attending next week’s Árd Fheis backed the proposal to support the police in the North.
“If those attending the Árd Fheis follow the recommendations of Sinn Féin’s Ard Chomhairle (national executive) Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness and Gerry Kelly and sign up to supporting the police and rule of law, there is no reason not to have an election campaign to get a mandate to take part in a power-sharing administration on March 26,” he said.
“All the ingredients will be in place following a successful Árd Fheis, I believe, for devolution to occur.
“There should be no dodging by anyone of their responsibilities because we cannot be any clearer. March 26 is D-Day – there will either be devolution on that date or dissolution.”
The minister said he believed that Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party was committed to sharing power provided republicans supported the police, the courts and the rule of law and demonstrated that.
“The DUP wants to see devolution happen,” he said. “I know Ian Paisley wants it and he has made that clear in recent weeks and days.”