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Last Updated: Monday, 15 January 2007, 08:09 GMT
Uncertainty still surrounds process
Mark Devenport
By Mark Devenport
BBC Northern Ireland political editor

When the IRA murdered Constable John Graham and Reserve Constable David Johnston as they walked the beat through Lurgan in June 1997, nobody would have predicted that within a decade the leadership of its political wing would be telling its supporters to back the police officers once considered "legitimate targets".

A motion released by the Sinn Fein executive this weekend also includes support for the criminal justice system, the party taking places on the Policing Board and authorising Sinn Fein ministers to pledge their support for the forces of law and order.

PSNI crest
Sinn Fein is calling on its members to back the PSNI

So by any standards the extraordinary ard fheis (party conference) which will debate this motion on 28 January promises to be historic.

However, the conditions attached to Sinn Fein's foray into backing the police still make the prospects for the election campaign due to begin in early February uncertain.

Sinn Fein officials are now scouring nationalist areas for suitable venues for large public meetings to put their case for such a dramatic change of policy.

This follows months if not years of more private discussions, preparing their own activists to think the unthinkable.

Some prominent republicans have already vowed to oppose the Sinn Fein leadership should the assembly election proceed in the spring.

But any observer of Gerry Adams' shrewd political calculations in the past will assume that the Sinn Fein president would not have embarked on this course unless he felt fairly sure that he could carry both the extraordinary ard fheis and the wider republican community.

However, even if Mr Adams chalks up a resounding victory on 28 January the course of events is unlikely to run smooth.

The motion to be debated gives the Sinn Fein leadership authority to implement the new policy in the context of "the re-establishment of the political institutions and confirmation that policing and justice powers will be transferred to these institutions".

But DUP politicians have said they will not move unless Sinn Fein first delivers on policing on the ground.

Some, such as the MEP Jim Allister, have argued that, even if republicans do deliver at the end of this month, 26 March isn't a credible testing period of their bona fides.

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams says the DUP must not have a veto over republicans

Yet the Sinn Fein leadership shows no sign of dancing to Mr Allister's tune.

Ian Paisley has consistently refused to give any guarantees on a timetable for the transfer of justice powers.

In his statement this weekend, Gerry Adams said it would be wrong "to allow the most negative elements of unionism a veto over republican and nationalist efforts to achieve the new beginning to policing promised in the Good Friday Agreement".

Sinn Fein he added for good measure "will not be paralysed by rejectionist elements of the DUP".

This does not appear to be code for the immediate implementation of Sinn Fein's new policy in early February.

Instead, if the DUP does not respond positively, republicans are talking about pressing the governments to introduce some policing element to any new British-Irish partnership arrangements which may emerge as a "Plan B".

A new Sinn Fein policy which has yet to be implemented could pose difficulties for the DUP.

In such a scenario it's hard to see the DUP unequivocally committing to share power in their manifesto for the election due to take place in March.

If they don't, Downing Street may wonder whether it is worth pushing ahead with an election which could be marred by confusion and negativity.

Let's be clear. Sinn Fein's decision to press ahead with their policing conference is far more positive for the political process than if republicans had taken their motion off the table.

But for all the welcomes for the initiative from premiers and party leaders, the ard fheis could still be the precursor to a period of political turmoil.


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