Why does Sinn Féin want the transfer of policing and justice? They say, of course, that it is important that these powers are transferred in order that the key decisions over how Irish people are governed are taken by Irish people. This position tends to gloss over the larger issues of wider sovereignty over Northern Ireland – worse, it gives the impression that Sinn Féin are willing to administer British rule in Ireland, as the dissident republicans frequently accuse.
But does Sinn Féin really think that having an Alliance Party nonentity administering policing and justice in Northern Ireland is really worth all this fuss?
Sinn Féin openly admit that:
" … the impasse over policing and justice is about something deeper than a transfer of powers. It’s about whether political unionism is prepared to co-exist with republicans in equality and partnership; and, prepared to accept the rights of all citizens – regardless of political allegiance – to equal treatment and parity of esteem."
And that is also a valuable lesson that needs to be taught. Whether unionism agrees to the transfer of P+J or not, it loses in nationalist eyes. By rejecting the transfer unionism positions itself as a negative, distrustful, even discriminating, throwback. By agreeing with the transfer it would be forced to admit that much of its post-1998 stonewalling was counterproductive and negative.
So nationalism – in its eyes – wins regardless. Why then is Sinn Féin staking the future of the whole institutional arrangements on something so irrelevant (since it does not, in fact, bring Irish unity and independence a day closer)?
Perhaps the real reason lies at another deeper level. The constant stonewalling by unionism, and the 'regretful, disappointed but still hopeful' response by nationalism, may actually be exactly the situation that Sinn Féin want, and have carefully constructed.
One of the strongest and most enduring justifications for the ending of Northern Ireland's sorry history as a separate state is the fact that it has always been a state that lacks the overwhelming legitimacy that normal states enjoy. If it can be seen to be a 'failed political entity', its demise would be both natural and desirable. The corollary – a successful legitimised state – could put back the cause of Irish unity by decades.
So Sinn Féin needs Northern Ireland to fail, and to be seen to fail. It is no news that they do not want it to succeed, but this has not brought about its destruction yet. If, however, the failure of the institutions can be shown to have been caused by unionist inability to play their role, then truly Northern Ireland has failed, and there is nobody left – apart from the miniscule Alliance Party – who would still want to make a go of it.
Perhaps Sinn Féin, by appearing weak and powerless on policing and justice, is simply giving unionism the rope it needs to hang itself, and its Project Ulster.