Sinn Féin voted to support the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) – formerly the RUC – at an extraordinary Ard Fheis (party congress) attended by nearly 1,000 delegates in Dublin. The motion was carried by over 90 percent of the vote.
Prior to the Ard Fheis Sinn Féin refused to participate on the PSNI policing board. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) cited this position as grounds to block power-sharing with the republican party and the impasse threatened to scupper the March 7 Assembly elections.
“The decision we have taken today is truly historic,” declared Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams. “This is one of the most important debates in the history of republicanism and of this country. Let’s not be upset by how others respond to today’s decision. The higher they build their barriers the stronger we become,” he added in a clear reference to anticipating a DUP response to Sinn Féin’s policy change.
The vote came after six hours of debate and a series of public meetings held in nationalist communities across Northern Ireland. Hardline republicans, including the Continuity IRA, objected vehemently to the proposal but the majority of ard fheis delegates endorsed the direction given by the party leadership.
Days before the historic meeting Police Ombudsman Nuala O’Loan published a report castigating the RUC special branch for colluding with UVF loyalist paramilitaries through the 1980’s and 90’s♦ in the murder of Catholics and nationalists. Adams used O’Loan’s damning report as evidence that collaboration between the police force and loyalist gangs should never happen again. Supporting the PSNI and participating in the policing board would enable republicans to prevent such a recurrence, he said.
Meanwhile the peace dividend of IRA ceasefire was felt in the republican heartland of Crossmaglen, South Armagh. The despised watchtower of a heavily fortified British Army base was removed and the land which the British Army seized from the adjacent GAA club is to be returned.
The tower was built in 1992 by the Royal Engineers to overlook the town and act as a guiding point for army helicopters flying in and out of the joint army/police base. Under a timetable of reducing troop numbers to a complement of 5,000 in Northern Ireland the British army will withdraw completely from the base by the end of March. From then on Crossmaglen station will be used solely by the PSNI.