‘International community must act to keep Palestinian statehood alive’

PLO Executive Member Professor As'ad Abdul Rahman

PLO Executive Member Professor As’ad Abdul Rahman

Published in An Phoblacht on 8 March 2010

Professor As’ad Abdul Rahman, an independent member of the PLO’s Executive Committee and a founding member of the PFLP, was a keynote international speaker at the recent Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. He spoke to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy about the need for the international community to act urgently to stop the colonisation of further swathes of Palestinian land in the West Bank and East Jerusalem if a two-state solution is to have any prospect of being achieved.

The criminal siege of Gaza is continuing to cause the deaths of Palestinians each day, and the world must take action immediately to lift the blockade, Abdul Rahman told An Phoblacht.

“Not only has there been no rebuilding of Gaza permitted since the bombardment reduced much of the territory to rubble, but more than a year later, Palestinians are still waiting desperately on an uncertain trickle of basic vital food and medical supplies to be allowed in,” he said.

“Resolving the humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip by lifting the blockade is the most urgent priority. At the same time we need to bring to the world’s attention what is going on in the West Bank, because each day the colonial actions of the Israeli government are moving the prospect of Palestinian statehood further and further away.”

Rogue state

Abdul Rahman spoke about the refusal by Israel to abide by existing agreements and of the role of the U.S. in tolerating Israeli aggression.

“Palestinians have had a very bitter experience of agreements entered into which have not been implemented,” he said.

“We thought 20 years ago that the discussions and process we began would deliver peace with justice in the Middle East. But this so-called peace process began an era of a new apartheid in Palestine, as Israel chose to go down the path of a rogue state.

“The consistent failure of world leaders to respond effectively to Israel’s violations have given the state the confidence to proceed on this course. The situation is worsening as the behaviour of Israel, now led by an extreme right-wing government, has become increasingly brutal and, frankly, crazy.

“This reckless brutality has manifested itself in many ways – the slaughter in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2008/09, the ongoing siege of the territory, and the Israeli response to the United Nations’ Goldstone Report into the Gaza attack.

“The official response to the Goldstone report which asserted that Israel had committed war crimes in Gaza was to call Justice Richard Goldstone a ‘self-hating Jew’ who was irrationally ‘biased against Israel’.”

Abdul Rahman pointed out that although the Goldstone report was adopted by the UN General Assembly, there will be no ‘independent inquiry’ set up by Israel to investigate violations of the laws of war, as the report recommended.

Goldstone’s report says that if Israel failed to do this, justice for the Gaza victims should be pursued through other mechanisms, in particular the International Criminal Court and the use of universal jurisdiction by other countries against states that breach the Geneva Conventions.

Abdul Rahman continued: “Of course, the most recent demonstration that Israel operates as a rogue state can be seen in the transnational killing of a Hamas leader (Mahmoud al Mamdouh) in a hotel room in Dubai by a large team of Israeli intelligence operatives who moved around using forged passports from several countries, including Ireland.

“Everybody, even Israel’s staunchest allies, recognises that Mossad was behind this transnational murder, just as Mossad was behind the assassination of (Hezbollah member) Imad Mughniyeh in Syria in 2008.

“How long can the U.S., and the rest of the world, stand back silently and watch as Israel violates not only the rights of the Palestinian people, but the basic laws and standards of interacting with other countries, including its western allies?” Abdul Rahman asked.

U.S. role

“Israel’s confidence in its impunity has been reinforced by the failure of the U.S. and the international community to take action as it violates agreements and continues its relentless colonial expansion,” the PLO representative said.

“When Barack Obama was elected U.S. president, he initially made strong statements and moves in favour of creating conditions conducive to negotiations resuming between us and the Israelis. But he has since then backed down and is now trying to insist that the Palestinians resume ‘negotiations without preconditions’.

“What this means is that Israel is allowed by the U.S. to continue its colonial settlement expansion and annexation across the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, in a flagrant breach of its commitments under the 2003 Road Map. In recent years Israel has dramatically intensified its colonisation of Jerusalem, evicting Palestinian families from their homes.

“Under the Road Map agreement Israel is obliged to cease all expansion of its colonies, including that of so-called natural growth. But this extreme-right Israeli government insists that Jerusalem is exempt from the settlement freeze and continues to seize Palestinian land, destroying the potential for East Jerusalem to be a viable capital of a future Palestinian state.

“It is impossible for any Palestinian leadership to negotiate directly with Israel under such conditions.”

Abdul Rahman said that U.S. envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, was working towards facilitating ‘proximity talks’ where direct negotiations would not take place but whereby he would travel between Israelis and Palestinians.

“Successive U.S. governments have also tried to sideline the UN from the Palestinian question – the Middle East Quartet (the U.S., UN, EU and Russia) has the UN only as one partner when by international law it should be the key body dealing with the issue,” he said.

“While the U.S. has repeatedly publicly stated that it views the ongoing colonial expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as being against international law, it has failed to exert the necessary pressure on Israel to cease this expansionism.

“Palestinian representatives, the Palestinian people, the Arab masses, and supporters of the Palestinian cause worldwide are fed up with nice talk and no deeds.”

Unexpected rift

Since carrying out this interview a major diplomatic rift between the U.S. and Israel has developed, with the Israeli announcement during a visit to the state by U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden last week that the government was to build 1,600 new homes in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in East Jerusalem.

Palestinian negotiators said there would be no talks, direct or indirect, unless Israel shelved the plans; Biden reportedly said the plans “would set the Middle East on fire”. Obama has demanded that Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu act to halt the planned construction and commit to re-entering negotiations on core issues with Palestinians.

Netanyahu apologised for the “unfortunate timing” of the announcement and, under intense pressure, said that the construction would not begin for at least a year, but he has stated that Israel’s ongoing colonisation of East Jerusalem is “not negotiable”.

It remains to be seen if the Obama administration will back up its unprecedented harsh words to Israel with actions.

Demand for unity

Abdul Rahman also discussed the division between the different factions of the Palestinian national movement, saying the longer the siege of Gaza and the restriction of movement between the two territories continued, the harder it will be to break down the barriers between Fatah and Hamas.

“There is a lot of work going on to pressure the different forces into working for unity, for a quick rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, despite the ideological and political schisms that have riven the national movement,” he told An Phoblacht.

“The strongest pressure, of course, comes from Israeli brutality and oppression, which fosters the demand for unity from the ordinary Palestinian people.

“If they fail to resolve these differences and work together in the interest of the Palestinian people, they are both becoming increasingly aware that they are moving toward their own destruction as political forces, because the Palestinian people view the factional fight as basically committing suicide – suicide of the nation. It is my deep hope that the two sides will come together soon to try to resolve their differences.”

PSNI must suspend use of stop and search powers

PSNI

Published in An Phoblacht on 10 February 2010

THE PSNI is under mounting pressure to suspend its use of stop and search powers granted under Section 44 of the British government’s Terrorism Act 2000. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled on 12 January that the power to stop and search people arbitrarily  – without any grounds for suspicion – was a violation of the human right “to respect for private life”.

The British government has refused to repeal or suspend the legislation and has said it plans to appeal against the ruling.

Sinn Féin MLA and member of the Policing Board Daithí McKay said the most recent figures available from the PSNI on the powers backed up the ECHR’s ruling’s finding that the so-called anti-terror legislation was being abused by police, and used in an arbitrary and discriminatory way.

Targeting nationalists

While in Britain the powers have been used disproportionately against black and Asian people – who are four times more likely to be stopped under S44 – McKay said the nationalist population in the Six Counties was overwhelmingly bearing the brunt of this violation of civil rights.

“Sinn Féin has campaigned against this abuse of power by the police since the introduction of this draconian legislation by the British government. We believe that, in light of the European Court of Human Rights ruling that the Section 44 powers are illegal, the PSNI must now suspend its use of these powers,” McKay said.

The latest quarterly figures publicly available, from July to September last year, on the PSNI’s use of S44 stop and search powers show three key findings:

•There was a dramatic jump in their usage, with figures more than doubling from the previous quarter. From July to September last year, 10,265 people were stopped and searched under S44 in the Six Counties.

•Stop and search powers continue to be invoked a vastly disproportionate number of times in nationalist areas. The constituency with the highest number of people stopped and searched during the July-September quarter was Foyle, with 2,203. While S44 stop and search powers were used 1,305 times in Strabane during the quarter, they were used only once in Larne, a town of around equal population.

•The use of stop and search continues to be demonstrably ineffective by the PSNI’s own criteria. Of the more than 10,000 people stopped and searched during the quarter, only 39 were subsequently arrested.

Abuse of power

Section 44 of the Terrorism Act allows areas to be “designated” for the use of stop and search without suspicion by a police constable. The designation is made by an assistant chief constable and subsequently endorsed by the Secretary of State – and it can be made without going through any judicial or parliamentary process.

Under the legislation, the designation lasts 28 days, but can be renewed on a rolling basis. Civil rights groups in England responded with outrage last year when it emerged that the whole of Greater London had secretly been an authorised stop and search area since 2001.

The powers allow police to stop an individual or a vehicle within a designated area and search the person, anything they are carrying, and their vehicle. The legislation means that police officers no longer have to have “reasonable grounds of suspicion” to do so.

In 2008/09 police forces in the North, and in England and Wales, stopped and searched around 250,000 people under S44. In 2008, the London Metropolitan police stopped and searched more than 2,000 children under 15 years old  – including 58 under the age of nine.

In July last year the London Metropolitan Police force announced it was refining and limiting its use of S44 powers following a review. The police force in Hampshire, England, said it was suspending its use of the powers the same month, citing the fact that no arrests were made despite more than 3,000 searches being carried out.

‘Illegal’

The European Court of Human Rights case was brought against the British government by two people who were stopped, interrogated and searched under the legislation in London in 2003 as they made their way to an anti-war demonstration against an arms fair. English civil rights group Liberty strongly supported the case.

The landmark ruling by the Strasbourg court on 12 January (Gillan and Quinton V the United Kingdom) found that:

•The power to search a person’s clothing and belongings in public could cause humiliation and embarrassment and was a violation of Article 8 of the Convention on Human Rights which guarantees the right to respect for private life.

•The fact that the decision to stop and search somebody was “based exclusively on the ‘hunch’ or ‘professional intuition’ of the police officer” meant there was a “clear risk of arbitrariness in granting such broad discretion” to a police officer.

•The judges were concerned by the way the powers are authorised. There is no requirement that the powers be considered “necessary” –  only “expedient”.

•The absence of any obligation on police officer to show a reasonable suspicion “made it almost impossible to prove that the power had been improperly exercised”.

The court found that the use of stop and search, and the way the powers are authorised, are “not sufficiently circumscribed nor subject to adequate legal safeguards against abuse”.

“They are not, therefore, in accordance with the law.”

Challenge

McKay said that the problems in the use of such police powers were compounded in the Six Counties, with a long history of such powers being abused for political repression against republicans and nationalists.

“Many of those who have been stopped and harassed by the PSNI were stopped because of their political opinion or background. This abuse of power amounts to political policing and damages the credibility of police forces that use them as well as community relations,” he said.

“People in the North want a police service that will deal robustly with serious issues affecting their daily lives such as drugs and criminality in our communities. They want to see effective, civic and accountable policing, and the use of Section 44 powers by the PSNI seriously undermines this.”

McKay said that Sinn Féin was calling on the PSNI to suspend its use of S44 powers and was challenging the PSNI on the issue on the Policing Board and in the District Policing Partnerships.

Sinn Féin spokesperson on Policing and Justice and Policing Board member Alex Maskey has written to the British government and the PSNI chief constable asking for their response to the ECHR ruling.

Fellow Policing Board member and Sinn Féin MLA Martina Anderson will be part of the Policing Board’s Human Rights and Professional Standards Committee’s review of stop and search powers which was announced following the ruling.

“The PSNI should now suspend its use of Section 44 in light of these facts and the ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that it is incompatible with Convention rights. The continued use of this legislation is a flagrant abuse of human rights,” McKay said.

Basque youth activist interviewed

Sinn Féin Republican Youth

Sinn Féin Republican Youth

Published by Sinn Féin Republican Youth in November 2009

Representatives from the Basque pro-independence youth organisation Segi visited Belfast from 13-15 November to participate in the Ógra Shinn Féin (now Sinn Féin Republican Youth) National Congress.

One of the Segi representatives spoke to An Phoblacht‘s Emma Clancy about the criminalisation of the pro-independence movement by the Spanish government; the recent Batasuna call for a democratic resolution to the Basque conflict, and the need to build solidarity between the Basque and Irish movements for independence. (As Segi has been banned by the Spanish government, the representative will remain anonymous.)

“As Ógra Shinn Féin celebrates 100 years of the Irish republican youth movement since the foundation of Na Fianna Éireann, we in Segi are celebrating 30 years since the formation of our predecessor organisation Jarrai,” the Segi representative said.

“Segi is a revolutionary socialist, feminist, pro-independence youth organisation. We organise young people across the Basque Country in struggles for their rights – for national rights and language and cultural rights, but also to improve their living conditions, housing, and their rights in the workplace or on campus.

“But while we celebrate three decades of struggle for Basque independence and socialism, our movement is coming under increasing repression.”

Segi (formerly Haika) was declared illegal in 2005 by the Audiencia Nacional (National Court, a Diplock-style political court in Madrid).

The court ruled that, while it was an “unauthorised” organisation, it could not be considered “terrorist” because it had no connection to political violence. But in 2007 the Spanish Supreme Court revised the ruling – despite there being no new evidence – and declared Jarrai-Haika-Segi to be a terrorist organisation.

“Now more than 100 of our comrades are in prison,” the Segi woman said.

“Now you can be jailed for eight years simply for membership of our organisation.

“The repression by the Spanish state against the youth movement is not only arrests and imprisonment, although these are its most obvious forms. The criminalisation goes much deeper and broader; it is structural.

“There are continual attacks against youth centres, youth demonstrations and gatherings. They are targeting not just pro-independence activists, but all community activists who provide leadership to strengthen their communities.”

The representative said that this year judgments have begun being handed down by the Spanish courts against Segi activists.

“Many have been held in ‘pre-trial detention’ since 2005 – four years being the maximum amount of time a person can be jailed before trial under Spanish law. The average sentence most young activists are receiving for their political activism is six years in jail,” she said.

“You can see the impact of the criminalisation campaign here in Belfast where Basque youth activist Arturo Beñat Villanueva is fighting extradition to Spain charged with membership of the youth movement.

“Each time a Basque political activist is arrested, the police come in the early hours of the morning and hold the person in incommunicado detention for five days, during which they are interrogated and often tortured.

“In many cases, police have forced the prisoners to sign statements saying they are members of a banned organisation, and judges will use these statements to convict the prisoners, even if is the only ‘proof’ offered by the prosecution.”

The activist said Segi “reaffirms its full support” for the proposal by Batasuna for a democratic resolution to the Basque conflict through a process in which the Basque people’s rights are recognised.

“This initiative is very significant and is the outcome of a process of discussion, consideration and reflection among the broad Basque pro-independence movement,” she said.

“As the initiative for peace and democracy was due to be announced in October, 10 leading Basque pro-independence activists were arrested and five of them remain in jail, including Batasuna spokesperson Arnaldo Otegi.

“The Spanish government clearly fears such an initiative that would pave the way for a democratic resolution to the Basque question.

“Only such a democratic process in which people’s rights are respected can lead to peace in Euskal Herria. Until then, there will be no lasting peace.”

She said that in as well as introducing legislation to criminalise all expressions of political support for Basque self-determination, the Spanish government was engaged in a “dirty war” of targeting political activists.

“Former prisoner and ETA volunteer Jon Anza disappeared in April this year,” she explained. “We believe Jon, who was ill at the time, was kidnapped and killed during the course of an illegal interrogation by the Spanish security forces and his body buried in France.”

“Several activists have been kidnapped, interrogated and beaten by security forces throughout the year as the Spanish government steps up its efforts to intimidate the movement and to recruit collaborators.

“We have to struggle against these actions, to bring about a situation where the state forces can no longer target political activists like this. We have no alternative.”

The Segi activist said that the PNV’s (conservative Basque Nationalist Party) loss of control of the parliament of the Basque Autonomous Community in elections in March (which the left-nationalists were prohibited from participating in) showed the true nature of the so-called “autonomy” that had been granted to the Basque Autonomous Community after the death of fascist dictator General Franco in 1975.

The two main Spanish parties, the PSOE and PP, formed an alliance to oust the nationalists from power after the election in March this year in which more than 100,000 Basques were disenfranchised as the parties they supported were banned.

“When Franco died and the Spanish constitution was introduced, the PNV helped blind people to the fact that what was on offer was not self-determination for the Basque people, but an attempt to divide us and have the Basques assimilate into the Spanish state,” she said.

“We can see 30 years later the impact of this strategy – in combination with repression and disenfranchisement – when the same parties that rule in Madrid are in power in the supposedly autonomous Basque parliament. There is no autonomy, only assimilation.

“The repression has certainly intensified since the PNV lost power. Over the summer almost 1,000 people were arrested under the charge of ‘glorifying terrorism’ for displaying photographs of the 740 Basque political prisoners in Spanish and French jails.”

The Segi activist said she believed “the best answer to these attacks is to develop the initiative proposed by Batasuna, to build the conditions in which the Spanish state forces feel pressured to sit down and have the discussion about the Basque nation’s rights that needs to be had”.

She said the Segi delegation was proud to participate in Ógra’s centenary celebrations as the Basque youth movement was celebrating its 30-year anniversary of struggling for independence and socialism.

“Our organisations share the same goals and have many similar experiences,” she said.

“At the moment, although we share the same objectives, we are working in different conditions and it is very important to develop links of solidarity between our sister organisations. Over the years Jarrai-Haika-Segi have sent many representatives to Ireland, and many Ógra activists have visited Euskal Herria.

“We have much to learn from each other, and these links of solidarity enrich the struggle, experience and knowledge of both organisations.

“Segi views the progress of the Irish republican movement in advancing national and democratic rights as a reference, a model, and as a source of hope and inspiration for our struggle.”

Community stands behind sacked Ford workers

Visteon

Gerry Adams with Visteon workers

 

Published in An Phoblacht on 9 April 2009

Hundreds of people joined a march in Belfast on Wednesday, 8 April in support of the 210 Visteon workers sacked on 31 May. The staff, who had been employed by US motoring giant Ford until it set up spin-off company Visteon in 2000, were entering their second week occupying the west Belfast car parts factory site in protest at the companies’ breach of redundancy terms.

Speaking to An Phoblacht, Sinn Féin west Belfast MLA Jennifer McCann, who addressed Wednesday’s community rally, said: “The workers have said they are very much heartened by the outpouring of solidarity from the west Belfast community and beyond since they began their fight to defend their basic rights and legal entitlements.”

Lifetime protection?

When Ford spun the parts manufacturing operation off into a new company, called Visteon UK, in 2000, the workers were guaranteed “lifetime protection” – that their pay and conditions would “mirror” those they worked under at Ford under their new employment contracts with Visteon.

But instead of getting the agreed 90 days’ notice for the redundancies, the workers got five minutes. While they are entitled to a minimum of 12 to 18 months wages as a redundancy payment plus pension in the event of a plant’s closure, the workers have now been told they can only claim statutory redundancy of about £9,000 pounds, and Visteon claims its pension fund is £150 million in deficit.

On the same day that Visteon sacked its Belfast workforce, it also fired hundreds of workers at two of its plants in England. After seeing the Belfast sit-in on the news, the workers in Enfield, north London and Basildon, Essex, organised occupations and protests at their factory sites.

Workers from Waterford Crystal, who began a seven-week occupation of their factory to save jobs in January, donated €5,000 to the west Belfast workers.

Local representatives, trade unionists and the broader community have supported the west Belfast workers by bringing food and supplies and joining hundreds of people in a family fun day in solidarity on Sunday. Speaking at the fun day, MLA and MP for west Belfast Gerry Adams said: “Ford cannot be allowed to renege on its responsibilities to the Visteon workers. Workers’ rights must be protected.

“Sinn Féin is committed to pursuing this issue. We will stand shoulder to shoulder with the Visteon workers until they are treated properly.”

Adams has argued the workers’ case with John Fleming, chief executive of Ford Europe, and the New York City Comptroller’s office, which has investments in Ford.

Ford’s obligations

Administrators KMPG said it had been “assured” by Ford that the auto giant had “no liability” to the Visteon UK staff and that Ford and Visteon are two separate legal entities.

But a legal document signed by Ford and Visteon management and union representatives in January 2000, supplied to An Phoblacht by Visteon staff, states:  “Accrued seniority and all existing terms and conditions, in particular pension entitlements, will be transferred to the new employment contracts. For the duration of their employment, terms and conditions of existing Ford employees, who transfer … will mirror Ford conditions (lifetime protection).”

A questions and answers document circulated to staff in 2000 said: “For the duration of your employment with Visteon UK, your terms and conditions . . . will mirror Ford conditions.”

A confidential internal Visteon document called Project Protea from May 21 2007 outlines the plan to shut down the Belfast plant.

“Belfast’s financial performance is impaired by uncompetitive labour costs,” the document says. Visteon’s strategy was to: “Develop duplicate sources for all the Belfast product lines by the end of 2007 …. Minimise information leaks by creating isolated project teams…. and engage Ford for assistance in transferring products to new locations.”

Many workers believe that after setting up Visteon UK as a “separate” company – which only made parts for Ford – the plants have been run into the ground, allowing Ford to set up shop or expand in states with lower wages while reneging on its obligations to its workforce here.

In 2007 another company was set up, Visteon Engineering Services, which 400 mainly engineering and administrative staff were transferred to from Visteon UK. Conveniently, most of the management of Visteon UK transferred their pensions into this new company, which has not been affected by the demise of Visteon UK and continues to trade.

Meanwhile, Visteon Corporation chief executive Donald J Stebbins took home US$1.48 million in cash and bonuses last year. The relationship between the web of companies around Ford and  records of their financial dealings with each other are not available publicly.

Derek Simpson, Unite’s joint general secretary, said: “I am convinced that Ford have a moral obligation to these workers who have been cruelly laid off with only a few minutes’ notice. Visteon have a contractual obligation, as well as a moral obligation to these workers.”

Unite is meeting Ford managers in New York on Wednesday for discussions about the redundancy terms. Union leaders said if the outcome of the talks is not satisfactory, the sit-in will continue.

Policing challenges must be met head-on

Alex Maskey

Interview with Alex Maskey: A year of Sinn Féin on the North’s Policing Board

Published in An Phoblacht on 23 October, 2008

FOLLOWING the historic decision by the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in January 2007 to critically engage with the policing structures in the Six Counties, MLAs Alex Maskey, Martina Anderson and Daithí McKay took up their seats on the Policing Board just over a year ago. Speaking to An Phoblacht’s Emma Clancy this week, Alex Maskey said that there has been both progress achieved and serious challenges encountered in the effort to transform policing through this engagement.

“As we know all too well, the police in the North of Ireland have historically acted as the paramilitary arm of the British state and the force’s primary role was the suppression of nationalist and republican dissent. Over the past decade, Sinn Féin has achieved crucial reforms and legislation which have opened a framework for us to begin to change this.”

The ‘new beginning for policing’ outlined in the Good Friday Agreement and then the hard-won legislation for the human rights-based reforms called for by the Patten Report were two key developments in the struggle to change a partisan, repressive force into an acceptable civic policing service. Maskey said that a key challenge is to ensure that the progress in legislation must now be implemented on the ground.

He outlined to An Phoblacht the work that Sinn Féin members have been doing on the Policing Board in order to try to achieve the goals set out collectively out by the party at the 2007 Extraordinary Ard Fheis, the challenges they face and the necessity of devolution of policing and justice powers from Westminster.

Policing Board

“During the past year, we’ve had to try to take stock of the Policing Board and to familiarise ourselves with its role and the way it functions. Now we are entering the next phase where we can focus on our specific priorities.”

The key role of the Policing Board is to monitor the service and hold it to account, as well as negotiating the PSNI’s plans and budgets. It also comprises several sub-committees which oversee various aspects of the functioning of the police.

Alex Maskey is the chair of the Community Engagement Committee and is leading the effort to build a new policing model where communities are consulted, have input into shaping policing and monitor the implementation of PSNI/neighbourhood goals.

He explained that among the range of the key issues Sinn Féin is playing a leading role in are community engagement, human rights, personnel, delivery of service – ie crime prevention and detection rates – and estate management.

Foyle MLA Martina Anderson has been working on the board’s Human Rights Committee which aims to ensure that all aspects of policing are compliant with human rights legislation. North Antrim MLA Daithí McKay is part of the Personnel Committee and a key issue he is involved in is trying to ensure that all communities have proper representation in each area of the PSNI.

Gerry O’Hara is serving on the board as an independent member and, among other issues, he has been campaigning on Irish-language rights.

Community Engagement

Maskey described the role of the Community Engagement Committee as being to oversee the development of the board’s engagement with the public and to target particular communities and groups with specific needs.

A crucial plank in the democratisation of policing is the district policing partnerships (DPPs) and the committee Maskey heads is overseeing their development.

The DPPs mirror the district councils across the North and they are the key forum for community involvement – through public meetings and other mechanisms – in developing local and board policing plans and in monitoring the implementation of these plans and performance of the police.

Maskey said the DPPs have become much more representative since Sinn Féin’s decision to enter policing structures and that people are now asking the tough questions never raised previously.

“As the committee chair, part of my role is to ensure that the DPPs receive proper resourcing. Part of this is training and providing education for DPP members in human rights legislation and standards in order that the DPPs may be better equipped to monitor the police in a more robust and informed way.

“In this way, we’re pushing an agenda of enabling the DPPs to become more assertive and efficient.

“Sinn Féin is pushing for a less formal format for the DPP meetings,” he said. “To ask a question, it must be submitted in writing seven days before the meeting. This obviously restricts the ability of communities and the police to have an actual discussion in the DPP.”

He said Sinn Féin has successfully improved the accountability of Chief Constable Hugh Orde and other senior officers by organising special public meetings with an open format where people can directly raise questions from the floor.

Priorities

“Our focus in the next period, including in the next policing budget and policing plan, is to significantly develop the neighbourhood policing model,” Maskey said. “We view this democratic input as essential for transforming the police into a fair public service for all, as well as for practically solving the problems plaguing many communities.

“We also aim to ensure that the PSNI becomes more effective and efficient in actually carrying out its work. We want to see a significant increase in the prevention and detection of crime and we view the targets set last year as baseline minimum.”

He said Sinn Féin also wants to see the PSNI use its resources more efficiently.

“As part of the process of demilitarisation, we want to see up to 40 redundant, barrack-like police stations shut down. They are not only a drain on resources but are essentially a barrier to the development of a constructive relationship between the PSNI and local communities. Who wants to approach one of these intimidatory forts to report a crime?

“Our position as we go into the discussions around the next budget, due in January, is that all of these redundant stations should be closed.”

Maskey also said this question relates to the concept of policing in partnership with the community: “People don’t want to be ‘policed’ – they want a policing service.”

Community safety

A key issue for local communities across the North that has been raised consistently on the DPPs is community safety and anti-social behaviour.

“Anti-social behaviour can be totally disempowering for a community, especially when the problem and perpetrators are identified to police by the community and no action is taken. It can grow from being an annoyance into serious crime,” Maskey said.

He explained that Sinn Féin takes a holistic approach to anti-social behaviour.

“We realise that a large proportion of anti-social crime is carried out by alienated young people who have no hope and feel alienated from their communities.

“So we take the approach where we aim to combine an effective community-led policing service with a very progressive social and economic agenda which aims to overcome the poverty and marginalisation which is the major cause of such problems. We work to do everything we can to provide youth services, decent housing and employment for people.

“At the same time, people have a right to feel safe in their neighbourhoods. Sinn Féin is determined to ensure that communities will get the security they are entitled to.”

Maskey pointed to the successful initiatives taken by activists in west Belfast such as the Safer Neighbourhood Forums which have effectively reduced crime and anti-social behaviour through a focused working relationship with the PSNI and statutory agencies.

He said that these neighbourhood-led initiatives showed the way forward for community-based policing, where organised communities have the capacity to identify the problems in the area and with the policing service and to communicate these to the PSNI in an ongoing way.

“Not every neighbourhood has this capacity but republicans need to lead the way in developing and generalising successful models of democratic policing. We need to know what we want to demand when we go into negotiations in the Policing Board and we have to be leading on the ground in order to know the needs of the people.

“We need to approach it as we do all our other campaign work: the same way we would struggle for decent housing rights and public services, we need to struggle for an acceptable public police service.”

Truth recovery

According to Maskey, community engagement structures are crucial not only for shaping the direction and policies of the PSNI. Bodies such as the DPP can also provide communities with the space where they can voice demands for truth on the role of police in Britain’s dirty war against Irish republicans.

Collusion and state murder have been consistently raised at DPP meetings and by Sinn Féin members on the Policing Board. Maskey said:

“The PSNI is hoping that these cases will just quietly go away but we will ensure that they stay at the top of the agenda until victims and families receive the truth.”

The 1992 RUC assassination of unarmed IRA Volunteer Pearse Jordan in west Belfast has consistently been raised in the Belfast DPP and on the Policing Board in support of the Jordan family’s battle for the truth about the state murder of their son.

In the Lisburn DPP, Marian Walsh, mother of teenager Damien Walsh – who was killed in a UDA sectarian attack in 1993 – recently confronted senior police officers about the vast amount of evidence of RUC collusion in her son’s murder.

Maskey said: “It is essential for the PSNI to face up to the ugly past of policing in the Six Counties so that the families of victims may know the truth, so that those responsible for these crimes be held accountable and these elements be removed from the PSNI, and so that a new relationship can be built between the police and the nationalist people.

“At the moment too many within the PSNI are continuing to play an obstructive role on these issues, which shows the need for a serious change of culture at all levels of the organisation.

“We have used our position in the policing structures to build public awareness and pressure for truth and justice and we will continue to do so.”

Maskey said that Sinn Féin is campaigning strongly against the use of lethal weapons by the PSNI. Sinn Féin has been the only party on the Policing Board to vote against the motion endorsing the use of 50,000-volt Taser guns in the North and Martina Anderson has voiced the party’s rejection of the deadly weapon, pointing out that while they are classified as ‘non-lethal’, they are responsible for the deaths of 300 people worldwide.

The United Nations has recently described the use of Taser guns as a form of torture that can be lethal.

The PSNI has already used the weapon against a man in Derry who had to be immediately hospitalised. Anderson described the board’s decision to endorse the deployment as “shameful” and said it was an attempt to undermine the judicial process as there is currently a judicial review of the deployment of the weapons underway.

Transfer of powers

Discussing the question of the significance of the transfer of policing and justice powers from Britain to the North, Maskey said:

“Over the past year on the Policing Board, I’ve become even more aware just how inefficient the system is in terms of different bodies not even communicating with each other.

“As the chair of the Community Engagement Committee I’ve convened meetings between the PSNI and other sections and agencies of the Criminal Justice System and it’s been very illuminating as to why, in a practical sense, we need the transfer of powers: we need the system to be joined up.

“With a transfer of powers to local democratic authority we can actually have a ‘home’ or somewhere to go that can be responsible for the overall provision of the policing service, which is a place for all the relevant organisations and bodies to be able to come under one roof.”

He said that the vast majority of people involved in policing realise this.

“Devolution will be a concrete step forward for our ability to develop a coherent and effective service capable of communicating with each other and with the community and delivering the collectively agreed goals.”

Democratic accountability

“Even the unionist politicians who are stalling on delivering their commitments from St Andrew’s acknowledge that devolution has to happen and that it will be beneficial to the entire population of the Six Counties,” Maskey said.

“Their opposition has absolutely nothing to do with the development of the policing and justice system but with a narrow political agenda of resisting change and democracy.

“The most important aspect of devolution of policing and justice is, of course, the question of democracy and accountability.

“This would be a significant step forward in that it would be the first time that people in the North could actually be empowered to democratically oversee the provision of the policing service in a meaningful way.

Local, elected officials would be accountable to the public.”

Maskey continued: “If you compare the justice system in some countries where they actually elect senior judges, for instance, you realise just how little say people in the North have over what is a major part of governance.

“But devolution will just be the first step. It’s not going to solve the numerous and serious problems we face in building an accountable civic policing and justice system but it will remove a barrier to progress in doing so.”

Mandate

“Sinn Féin won a mandate from the nationalist community for a strategy of critical engagement with the policing structures,” Maskey explained.

“But as I’ve said to Hugh Orde, the nationalist people didn’t vote for the PSNI: they voted for Sinn Féin’s ability to change it.

“This really should not be taken for granted by the PSNI. I’m not confident that this fact has sunk in at the top management levels or that it has been translated through the ranks.

“We’re talking about a history of the brutalisation and intimidation of the nationalist people in the North – the police have to earn our acceptance and trust. And they’ll have to work much harder to do this.

“As a party, Sinn Féin is acutely conscious that our mandate is one for delivering deep-going change that makes a meaningful difference to communities across the North and consigns partisan, political policing to history.

“We’re approaching this work with the utmost seriousness and we are committed to meeting the challenges head-on.”