The trouble with attempting to have your cake and eating it is that the crumbs make a terrible mess. So it is with Sinn Féin. Endorsing policing at a regional level, but still playing to community reservations about how reformed the police actually are, ends up with no one being particularly happy.
Policing and justice are things that ideally one shouldn’t attempt to equivocate about. Just as you can’t be half pregnant you can’t support the police in theory, turn a blind eye to the existence of the IRA Army Council, and express reservations about aspects of policing on the ground.
By doing so Sinn Féin has caused itself two problems. Unionist politicians have found their stance to be reason enough (rightly or wrongly) to block the devolution of policing and justice. Sinn Fein have rattled the cage over this but short of bringing down the institutions there is very little they can do about it.
The bigger problem presented by their ambiguous stance is the growth of disquiet amongst the nationalist electorate about perceived ‘lawlessness’ in certain areas of Northern Ireland.
No one under estimates the difficulty for Sinn Féin, given its history, in giving its full stamp of approval to policing in NI but the public expressions of support that leading members of the party have given have not yet been enough to persuade – an understandably sceptical population – to fully engage with the PSNI to combat crime in West Belfast and South Armagh.
Perhaps only time will change things because short of Gerry Adams physically accompanying the PSNI on patrol it is difficult to see what else Sinn Féin can do to convince nationalist residents in places like West Belfast to help the police.
Likewise perhaps only time (and the ‘disbandment’ of the Army Council?) will convince unionists to agree to the devolution of policing and justice. Indeed we may have to wait until a new raft of post Troubles politicians come forward in Sinn Féin and the DUP for this to happen successfully.