Signaling a possible breakthrough in what has been the biggest stumbling block to a power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein leaders said Thursday that they had summoned their executive leadership to consider endorsement of the provincial police force.
The meeting, scheduled for today in Dublin, the capital of the republic of Ireland, follows days of round-the-clock negotiations with the British prime minister's office that appeared to have produced a compromise that, if agreed on, would allow Sinn Fein leaders to call a partywide conference in January to seek concurrence on the policing issue.
For Northern Ireland's republicans, who fought for years for independence from Britain and suffered years of arrests and killings at the hands of the police, agreeing to support the force in a joint government with pro-British unionists is in many ways an even bigger step than the Irish Republican Army's surrender of its weapons and explosives.
"Don't underestimate how huge this is," Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said in an interview.
"The achievement of a new beginning to policing ... would be an enormous accomplishment, and I believe we have reached the point of taking the now-necessary step," he said. "I am certain that an initiative of this kind is in the interest of all our people. It is the right thing to do. If it succeeds, it will advance the struggle of equality and the search for a just and lasting peace on the island of Ireland."
Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, the British government's representative, welcomed the call for today's executive meeting, which is expected to lead to the convening of the full party conference by the end of next month, well ahead of the March deadline the British and Irish governments set for a power-sharing agreement.
"There has been intensive work on this issue over the last few weeks, and considerable progress has been made," Hain said in a statement. "Getting agreement on policing and power sharing are the twin pillars on which devolution will stand, and I am very encouraged that what we have all been working for is moving into place."
Ian Paisley, head of the Democratic Unionist Party, has refused to enter a government with Sinn Fein, the IRA's political arm, without the party's assurance republican leaders will support the new government's law enforcement organs and aid prosecution of terrorist crimes.
"Words alone have never been enough," Paisley said of Thursday's announcement. "Unionism will be interested in the quality of delivery on the ground when it comes to support for policing and the rule of law."
Adams refused to discuss the details of the proposal to be submitted to the leadership today, but said all factions of the republican movement, along with the families of those who died during years of conflict, would be consulted and have an opportunity to debate before any final endorsement by the party.
"Considerable progress has been made during these discussions," he said, the results of which would be reported at today's meeting. He said he would propose that the leadership convene the full party congress for consideration of the policing issue, a recommendation that until Thursday he had repeatedly refused to make.
By law, half of all new hires by the Police Service of Northern Ireland have to be Roman Catholic. But republican leaders say there are no guarantees that newly hired Catholics are sympathetic to the republican cause. Equally problematic has been the role of the British special services, MI5, in policing Northern Ireland.
British officials say the MI5's involvement in Northern Ireland, given the province's international border, is essential at a time when Britain faces mounting terrorist threats. Sinn Fein has refused to accept any attempt to merge the MI5 with the local police force.
"Sinn Fein wants to see an end to MI5 involvement in Ireland. We want no role for MI5 in civic policing," Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein's policing spokesman, said last week. "In the new beginning to policing which Sinn Fein is trying to achieve, there will be no place for political policing, or collusion, or for a return to a 'force within a force.' "
Times staff writer Murphy reported from London and special correspondent Graham from Belfast.