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Date Posted: Sat, Jan 06 2007, 0:55:20 PST
Author: Anthony McIntyre-THE BLANKET
Subject: "Policing"-Toome Debate
In reply to: Martin Galvin-THE BLANKET 's message, "Telling Moment at Toome" on Sat, Jan 06 2007, 0:19:18 PST

Toome Debate

Anthony McIntyre 21 December 2006

A week ago today I went along to the Toome debate on policing organised by Concerned Republicans. Whether officially concerned or not those concerned appear to be growing in number. Nevertheless, it would be an untrained eye that would read too much into that. If only I had a pound for every time over the past ten years it had been pointed out to me that the Sinn Fein vote will go down next time around. Still, there is a rustling and an oppositional energy like never before in the history of the Provisional abandonment of republicanism.

On this occasion the size of the panel had got larger, four rather than three. The SDLP, still holding its nose at sharing platforms with the 'wild men' of republicanism, failed for the second time to turn up at a policing debate promoted by Concerned Republicans. Sinn Fein probably gained more from that. The SDLP rather than Concerned Republicans would be better placed to measure the accuracy of claims made on its own behalf by Sinn Fein vis a vis the negotiations with the British on the policing issue. The story has it that Sinn Fein offered not one word of opposition to the St Andrews document on the question of MI5. Late in the final day at St Andrews when the document was being churned out for the parties to read, a halt was brought to proceedings because Sinn Fein had raised three objections - not one of which dealt with MI5. Now the party is in brouhaha mode over the spook agency. That type of detail would be the SDLP forte at public debates on policing.

The debate in the Elk Hotel was well attended. Sinn Fein had a bigger presence amongst the Toome audience than in the earlier event in Conway Mill. Many party members appeared to have been bussed in for the event. It is as legitimate as anybody else being bussed in. Sinn Fein appears to control who in its ranks attend. For Concerned Republicans it is a free for all. While a high powered team of Sinn Fein activists turn up, away from the venue and out of sight of television cameras other party members and supporters report the visit to the house or the quiet word on the street or in the pub. The message is the same - your presence is not required.

A lot has been written on websites about the Sinn Fein contingent trying to intimidate the rest of the audience. It was not the impression I got. It was good to meet up with old friends from the South Derry region who remain in Sinn Fein. Apart from banter about the size of each other's belly and the ageing process, there was nothing that could be remotely described as a clash. One member of the audience said the tension in the room could be cut with a knife. I didn't feel it.

If anything the Sinn Fein members in the audience treated the panellists with respect. The only heckling of any speaker came from the anti-Sinn Fein lobby. Many of their colleagues later expressed dismay at the heckling, feeling it is thwarting genuine discussion. Heckling is tantamount to censorship. It is not just an assault on the panellist's right to speak but on the audience's right to hear.

There was a sense that Sinn Fein put in a weary performance. Its speaker Declan Kearney was not as polished as on his earlier outing at Conway Mill. He complained at having to sound like a stuck record, facing the same questions. It seemed not to have occurred to him that the audience might be fed up with the same answers.

Declan Kearney's case is argument by assertion. From a republican perspective it is logic-deficient. Not without merit he accused the 32 County Sovereignty Movement of engaging in theology, but overlooked that his own contribution amounted to codology. He hammered on about the need to end political policing but completely evaded the question of how this is to come about. The paradox at the heart of the Sinn Fein position, it was put to him, was one of being prepared to support political policing that will put republicans in jails for armed resistance to the British state. If the party is not prepared to perform such functions at the behest of the British state and the DUP, then it will never attain the justice ministry. The leaderships who send young men out to fill Maghaberry prison, he argued, should face that question.

I thought it was a question they were facing. One need only look at the letters pages of the Irish News to see as much, where disquiet pertaining to the events surrounding the kidnap and torture of Bobby Tohill has been vented. One former IRA prisoner asked:

Did anybody even think that there would be a time when the IRA would send four volunteers on a sanctioned operation and when it all went wrong Martin McGuinness would without embarrassment tell those volunteers to hand themselves over to British justice?
All in the service of helping to fill Maghaberry.

Nevertheless, Kearney does articulate a strategy which an 'off night' does not invalidate. It is a reformist strategy but a strategy nonetheless. His opponents between them have revolutionary positions but no strategy for making those positions attractive to the support base, without whose endorsement such positions remain intangible.

If an overall assessment were to be made of the debate, for three of the parties it could be measured against their performance at Conway Mill. Sinn Fein's was poorer. The 32 County Sovereignty Movement stayed the same, largely due to the use of what John Hume once termed the Single Transferable Speech. Only the IRSP seemed to advance, although only incrementally. Paul Little was very relaxed as some of the audience tried to pose awkward questions. A wealthy Belfast Provisional quoting from a tabloid, which he acknowledged is never that reliable, asked the IRSP man if the party intended challenging Sinn Fein in elections. Little's put down, while not providing the clarity that the Sinn Fein man wanted, won much applause from the audience.

The Sinn Fein strategy on the night against the 32CSM and IRSP speakers was to persist with the hardly unreasonable question of what alternative is postulated to Sinn Fein policy. Little, wary of prescribing a blueprint from on high, argued that the communities must be given the latitude to both debate the matter and decide on how they wish to be policed. A logical enough response if viewed as a holding position but not one that can be expected flourish in the political market place where over the counter gratification is preferable to a deferred result.

Francie Mackey persisted in Jesuitical style to focus the debate on the question of national sovereignty. There is little in what Mackey said that a republican traditionalist could find fault with. But it was like listening to the mass in Latin; fine for the small number of traditionalists but little that would be understood by those large swathes not imbibed on traditionalist assumptions.

The three panellists were overshadowed by the presence of a fourth, Larry O'Neill, who recently resigned from Sinn Fein. It was the first time I had seen him since we shared a cage in Magilligan Prison back in the 1970s. Then he was unassuming. It was a characteristic he seemed not to have lost, preferring to avoid the limelight. On this occasion he felt things had got so bad under the autocratic Adams leadership, the defining feature of which is control freakery, that he had no choice but to step in front of the spotlight.

O'Neill told his audience that he was a lifelong republican who had finished his education at primary school. His comment that he had not swallowed a dictionary like others on the panel and would not therefore fill his listeners' heads with mad dogs shit was met with rapturous applause.

It was timely appearance by the North Antrim activist. With Sinn Fein trying to persuade the wider public that there is a threat posed to it by republicans, O'Neill alleged that the one republican whose safety he is genuinely alarmed about is Dominic McGlinchey, one of the organisers of Concerned Republicans. The son of murdered parents, McGlinchey is said to have been warned on a number of occasions that his life is in danger.

O'Neill addressed the issue of the threats, in spite of his desire to keep the debate within the confines of the policing question, only because IRSP representatives in the audience were adamant that Sinn Fein was being disingenuous in its allegations that some of its leading members' lives were in danger. The IRSP pointed out that it had a meeting with Sinn Fein leaders after the threats were supposedly made aware to the Sinn Fein leadership but not the public. This meeting took place on the 3rd of November. At it Sinn Fein raised the debates being organised by Concerned Republicans but made no reference to the supposed threat. The IRSP at Toome asked why the threats were not raised then given that, according to Gerry Adams, speaking on the 13th or 14th of November, he knew at the time of the November 3rd meeting that INLA members were amongst those posing the threat.

The lack of any persuasive response caused my mind to wander back earlier in the evening to when Paul Little had parried a question from a Sinn Fein member in relation to possible electoral intervention by critics of the party. Such was the Sinn Fein member's anxiety that it struck me that what Sinn Fein really fears is not a physical assault on their lives but an electoral assault on their constituencies.

Concerned Republicans seem to be on a roll at the minute. Sinn Fein replacing some of its elected representatives with even more malleable candidates, has added to the party's woes and the confidence of its critics. Leaving the Elk in Toome, I felt that for the first time in the peace process, the Sinn Fein leadership had to explain itself. The authoritarian levee has long held out against the encroachment of democratic grassroots sentiment. The levee is far from collapsing but only the party's grovelling grunts can claim to believe it has not been breached.

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