The hall at Conway Mill where the Des Wilson/Pádraigín
Drinan sponsored debate on policing was being
hosted rapidly filled up until there was standing
room only. It was more than the organisers could
have hoped for. Within the community dominated
by Sinn Fein there are so many opinions on the
policing question wanting to be heard that the
party's attempt to control the debate and quell
dissent has been faltering like never before.
yesterday morning some of the organisers of the
'Policing - A Bridge Too Far?' event were concerned
that the turnout might not be great. Erroneous
reports in two newspapers that it was a meeting
organised by dissidents had led to some discomfort.
Alarmed, the SDLP pulled out. Sinn Fein had been
briefing others who planned on being there that
the policing issue was being used as camouflage
behind which a new armed organisation was being
formed. If true, the camouflage worked so well
it should be patented. Nobody but Sinn Fein seems
to know anything about this new army. The party
had also, according to those claiming to have
received a 'visit', been busy intimidating and
threatening some of its own disaffected members
not to turn up or to align with anyone speaking
out against party strategy.
was all the more surprising then as the platform
speakers and chair had taken their seats, that
a group of Provisionals moved through the hall
to occupy the front row facing the panel and indicated
to the chair that one of their number would like
to be a panellist. They came from diverse geographic
locations and were presumably brought in for the
occasion. A perfectly legitimate approach for
Sinn Fein to take; but exclusively for themselves
alone, it seems. The party's spokesperson on policing
and justice was parsimonious by later complaining
that many others not supportive of his party copied
long established Sinn Fein tactics and were bussed
in for the meeting. To his conspiratorial mind
the busocrats have now joined the ever growing
Crat Alliance which is hell bent on frustrating
his efforts to be recognised by the British establishment
as Sir Jack Kelly.
most others had drifted into the hall the Provisionals
seemed to file through the aisle. Maybe it was
not intended but there was a touch of the menace
to it. A member of the audience later likened
it to the arrival on stage of one of the gangs
in West Side Story. As they were leaving their
Sevastopol Street HQ minutes earlier to make the
short journey to 'the mill' someone who observed
them felt they were on their way to intimidate.
Alternatively, they may only have been going to
show support for their man who would most certainly
face a difficult audience. On the night, only
one of them showed any aggression when he tried
to bully a seated woman who had mildly heckled
the Sinn Fein speaker. She quickly put manners
on him. The rest of the Sinn Fein team behaved
much like the audience in general.
Kelly had initially been invited to speak. But
as he had apparently been busy undermining and
maligning one of the organisers his appearance
was not anticipated. In any event Sinn Fein did
not keep its best wine to the last. For the occasion
it served up a much more sophisticated and articulate
panellist than Kelly to put the party's case,
Declan Kearney. Given the composition of the audience
it was a prudent choice. Whatever about Kearney's
message his delivery is flawless and he maintains
an unflappable demeanour in the face of taunts
by a very capable Brendan Mackin, the debate featured
two other speakers, Willie Gallagher of the IRSP
and Francie Mackey of the 32 County Sovereignty
Movement. If the audience wasn't always in sync
with their example, the speakers at least were
courteous to each other.
quality of the discussion was not as high as might
have been hoped for. Because the audience generally
wanted to challenge the Sinn Fein representative,
the alternative views coming from the panel were
not sufficiently probed. There was also a touch
of déjà vu to the night's proceedings.
Listening to rather than looking at the panel,
Kearney, Mackey and Gallagher respectively sounded
like Malachy McGurran of the Worker's Party, Seamus
Loughran of Sinn Fein and Seamus Costello of the
IRSP debating away back in 1976. The arguments
are just about the same now as they were then.
stood out about Declan Kearney's contribution
was the extent to which it showed that Sinn Fein
is on an expedition without any ideological compass.
The party is committed to nothing but the pursuit
of power. Policing is just one more strand of
state power. That British state power will not
be usurped in the slightest by Sinn Fein endorsing
the PSNI seems not to matter. The strategy can
be described rather than condemned as being reformist.
Where it can be condemned is for falsely posturing
a reformist project within the six county state
the Sinn Fein strategy is not without merit. The
SDLP has consistently articulated a similar reformist
position; which makes its hardly courageous withdrawal
from the debate a huge disappointment. But it
is hard to see where a reformist strategy fits
into any republican conceptual framework with
its inherent bias against reformism.
this reason, it was impossible for Declan Kearney
to win the debate with that particular audience
as judge. He was articulating a reformist position
to the body of a hall that was overwhelmingly
hostile to reformist arguments.
Kearney's delivery came at a gallop, it was easy
to keep up with. Anybody capable of reining in
his liberal use of political concepts or sociological
jargon was never in danger of being dismounted
by the twists and turns of the predictable steed
that raced out of Sinn Fein's reformist stable.
While the speaker never paused for breath, there
was nothing in what he said that would cause his
audience to pause for reflection. It was high
octane vacuity; an urbane and methodical presentation
of nothingness precisely because its purpose was
a holding operation designed to allow Sinn Fein
to keep its cards close to its chest until it
is ready to play.
Kearney's fellow panellists, Willie Gallagher
and Francie Mackey were consistent in their defence
of republican principles. They were adamant that
there were no circumstances in which they could
envisage any endorsement of the PSNI. Only in
a post-partitionist environment would any police
force be considered legitimate. They gave a standard
republican take on the policing question and their
adherence to a revolutionary stance was consistent
with their long standing political activism. Mackey
and Gallagher while not as polished as their Sinn
Fein opponent, made all the running from a republican
perspective. Strong on principle, weak on policy,
their major deficiency is that they managed to
sound as rhetorical as Kearney did vacuous.
however, Sinn Fein has the advantage. Outside
of the audience in Conway Mill a vacuity that
delivers something vis a vis a rhetoric that delays
everything will have much more popular appeal
amongst an electorate that might admire but can't
live off the proceeds of a principled republican
while the Sinn Fein position was assailed by the
body of the hall, there can be little cause for
cheer amongst Declan Kearney's republican critics.
Kearney's position is premised on Sinn Fein knowing
the nationalist vote is not wedded to republicanism.
The party has been more than willing to abandon
republicanism in order to catch that vote. Electorally,
it has not allowed its party machine to exist
within a post-republican vacuum. It replaced republicanism
with alternative substance. Its reformism is grounded
in concrete politics. The republicanism of its
revolutionary critics does not gel with the pervasive
Gramscian 'common sense' that holds sway in the
minds of the nationalist electorate which Sinn
Fein has astutely discerned and successfully channelled.
A reformed RUC rather than a disbanded RUC sits
easily with the vote Sinn Fein is chasing. While
Sinn Fein does not want to depoliticise the police,
opting to merely give the appearance of doing
so, its opponents face an uphill struggle in their
anti-PSNI campaigning unless they manage to engage
with the community whose support is necessary
for the purpose of advancing republicanism. Engagement
means policies rather than platitudes; not merely
moulding the community in the image of republicanism
but being moulded by the community.
all its shortcomings, characterised as it was
more by heat than light, the debate was none the
less welcome for that. The organisers deserve
credit for pulling it off, the chair for his even-handedness
and efficiency, the panellists for participating,
and the audience for turning out in such numbers.
But it needs to be exported to other communities
throughout the North. Ultimately, Sinn Fein may
win the debate. Its critics can hardly complain
about that if foul play has no part in proceedings.
But the party cannot be allowed to succeed through
default. It should be harried into that debate
on the same terms as everyone else so that the
wider community can have a say on matters crucial
to its future. If policing is to be demonstrated
as a bridge too far, then the Conway Mill debate
on its own was a bridge not far enough.