First off, regular readers will be aware that I’m not in favour of accepting policing. The reasons for this are very simple. I’m not claiming that the current PSNI is exactly the same as the old RUC, although the changes made to policing practice are not half as significant as the PR would have it. Basically, any northern police force cannot but be a pillar of imperialism, and cannot but be a sectarian force. RSF correctly pointed out that the old RIC had lots of Catholic officers, but that didn’t stop it being a British force pledged to uphold British rule. I would add to that the point that non-sectarian policing in the North is impossible for the same reason that you can’t have non-sectarian unionism; that since partition, the Northern state has been based on the maintenance of sectarian privilege, and the armed wing of the Northern state must by its very nature enforce that state of affairs.
Now, the main argument put for joining the policing structures is that you can influence policing in a positive direction, making real, far-reaching changes instead of just taking a few rough edges off the old RUC. That is essentially the argument put by the SDLP in 2001, and Grizzly only differed in setting the bar slightly higher in terms of reform. This is quite persuasive, if you think the Northern state is reformable. Leaving aside the ludicrous Ard Fheis claims that supporting policing would undermine partition, that really is the key point. For decades republicans, and the majority of socialists, have taken the view that the North was irreformable. Against that was the Humeite view that sectarianism was a mere excrescence on Northern politics, and it was possible to have a Six-County state where genuine democracy and equality could exist. That is the view that the vast majority of Ard Fheis delegates have embraced.
I won’t waste too much time on the speeches from the ardán: since the latter-day Provos have developed a political culture whereby lying is held to be the height of sophistication, there is only so much you can take. I have a theory that when Elvis shot the TV, Mitchel McLaughlin was on. But to briefly recap the lowlights, Grizzly did his usual language-mangling turn, replete with all sorts of references to issues that push republican buttons but are of dubious relevance to the actual debate; copious backslapping of his intelligent and well-informed audience; and lots of gobbledegook about this concept of “civic policing” he has been pushing recently. Gerry Kelly was Grizzly without the folksiness, and I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse; the god-awful Mary Lou McDonald offered up further evidence that she never really left Fianna Fáil; and Marty McGuinness gave his well-honed “Is mise an Ghluaiseacht” speech.
And of course the delegates lapped up this tripe. Even the few dissenters loudly pledged their support for party unity. There was no walkout, which was disappointing but hardly surprising. In fact, not even the margin of victory was surprising, for a number of reasons. Most obvious of these is the arm-twisting that went on at cumann level in the run-up to the Ard Fheis. More importantly, there aren’t many ideological republicans left in Sinn Féin Nua: many have left, others are keeping a low profile, and there are many many people in the Provos who have basically stopped being republicans in anything but a Platonic sense, if they were ever republicans in the first place. There is a whole generation of party members, especially in the South, which believes itself to be radical (and that can cause the Gerryites some problems, as over a possible coalition at Leinster House) but has had zero education in principled politics. And finally, the leadership remained united – there was simply nobody of any stature willing to challenge Gerry, nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable future.
And this leaves us with the question I keep getting posed – what’s the alternative? A glib response would be to say that I wouldn’t have got myself into this position to start with – it’s difficult for me to put what PSF supporters would see as credible alternatives, because we aren’t arguing from the same premises. A better question to ask might be, what force could pose as an alternative pole of attraction? No easy answers to that one, but it at least allows us to look at the dynamics of the republican base, and the strengths and weaknesses of the tendencies that might aspire to be an alternative.