IRA activity key to progress for DUP
The over-publicised and much-leaked report from the Independent Monitoring Commission will strengthen the DUP's resolve not to share power with Sinn Féin. Colm Heatley reports
This weekend the DUP will stage its annual conference at the Ramada Hotel outside Belfast and the party will have more to celebrate than its electoral dominance of the North.
The leaking of crucial sections of the Independent Monitoring Commission's (IMC) report into paramilitary activity has bolstered the DUP's resolve to oppose power-sharing and has vindicated, in unionist eyes, the party's hard-line opposition to political compromise with Sinn Féin.
On Tuesday (31 January), the DUP launched its 16-page 'Facing Reality' document, re-iterating its opposition to power-sharing with Sinn Féin. "Setting aside executive devolution as a prospect for the foreseeable future leaves a range of possible structures ... which include low-responsibility bodies such as a shadow Assembly," the document said.
When the IRA decommissioned its arsenal late last year, the IMC report was regarded as the last hurdle to political progress: a positive report would have increased pressure on the DUP to work with Sinn Féin. Instead this week the DUP will come under no pressure to compromise with republicans.
If what has been leaked is actually contained in the report when it is made public next week, the prospect of restored power-sharing taking place this year will be severely weakened.
The media has speculated that the IMC report will claim that both loyalists and the IRA are still involved in criminality, and the IRA in ongoing intelligence-gathering.
Republicans have rubbished the claims, but since it was established in 2004 the IMC's determinations have played a key role in political developments. The report has already been handed over to both governments.
The first signs that the IMC report would not give the IRA a clean bill of health came last week when Sam Kincaid, Assistant Chief Constable of the PSNI, told a meeting of the District Policing Partnership board that the IRA was still involved in criminality.
The comments were leaked to the media and a rift opened up between Kincaid and Security Minister Shaun Woodward. Just six weeks ago, Woodward told interviewers he believed the IRA had ceased all activity. In recent days he has stood by those comments, while republicans have accused Sam Kincaid of deliberately attempting to influence the outcome of the IMC report.
The IMC relies almost exclusively upon intelligence assessments from the PSNI, MI5, Special Branch and the Garda.
Despite its name, it has few, if any, independent sources outside the security loop: critics say it merely rubber-stamps state security assessments.
Sinn Féin's Newry and Armagh MP, Conor Murphy, called for the Commission to be scrapped: "The IMC operates entirely outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement."
"It is attempting to exercise a veto over the democratic rights and entitlements of people on this island and the time has long since passed to end the negative role this body plays in the wider peace process."
The recent leaks to the media have also damaged the reputation of a body which is supposed to act in strictest confidence. It appears now that April's IMC report will be the one which holds the prospect of political movement in the North. By then the marching season will be rapidly approaching and any talks may be shelved until the Autumn.
The IMC leaks take place against a backdrop of recent behind-the-scenes political manoeuvring, which suggest the British government is changing its position on the options open to the North's political parties. Before the New Year, Peter Hain appeared determined to resurrect the Assembly as quickly as possible and ruled out any 'Plan B'.
However, since January that line has softened with Hain suggesting that some 'compromise' solution could be found. That line of thought was strengthened last week when the SDLP said it would accept a Stormont Executive administered by unselected officials with an "advisory" input from Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs).
The proposal, effectively for an unaccountable Stormont executive, was closer to the DUP's thinking than might have been expected and left Sinn Féin as the only party advocating a speedy and full restoration of the Assembly. The outcome of the talks, scheduled to begin on 6 February, will be severely hampered by a negative IMC report.
One senior DUP source said the party is confident nothing significant will come out of the negotiations. "The only outcome will be a strengthening of the DUP position.
"How can the government expect us to move forward with a party that is, according to independent reports, still involved in criminality and terrorism? They won't be able to push us around, our analysis will be accepted."
In the short-term, the DUP's position has been strengthened and strategists within the party are already looking to April's IMC report as a first test, should it find that all IRA activity has ceased.
Peter Hain has urged "caution" and insisted that the IMC report should not be pre-judged. Ultimately, however, the North's short-term political future is reliant, once more, upon anonymous security briefings.