'IT'S the police, stupid." That was the Christmas message to republicans from the US administration. They're making a feeble fist of rebutting it.
Mitchell Reiss - the tough US special envoy to Northern Ireland - put it straightforwardly: "Today, Sinn Fein is the only political party in Europe that does not support policing. Gerry Adams often talks about parity of esteem [which] implies parity of responsibility. We think Sinn Fein has a responsibility to tell its constituents they should co-operate with the police - without fear of retribution. By denying republicans and nationalists proper policing and justice, Sinn Fein has condemned them to a ghettoised existence."
Even more woundingly, he went on to point out that for insurance purposes, republicans deal with the police: "Mark Durkan, the leader of the SDLP, recently observed that, 'The Sinn Fein leadership admit they go to the police if they have car accidents. So now we know. They put their no-claims bonuses ahead of a child's right to justice and protection. So much for their Ireland of equals.'"
If there's anything more offensive to republicans than being accused of being spies or hypocrites, it's quoting the leader of the SDLP - a guy who Sinn Fein had bragged would be toast after the May general election. Instead, the upstart MP is standing up to Sinn Fein and actually being listened to in Washington by the people who matter.
Cue for Adams to call for help from Irish-America. In the Irish Echo - a New York organ now being printed and distributed here by the Andersonstown News, a media group that has inter alia perpetrated the whingefest that is Daily Ireland, is (ahem, how shall I put it, lawyers?) sympathetic towards Sinn Fein and is subsidised by the poor old British taxpayer - Adams accused Reiss of writing in "an unhelpful and partisan manner".
With breathtaking effrontery/ brass neck/ double standards/ pot-kettlery, he explained that the RUC had been "a political paramilitary militia, which engaged in the most disgraceful abuse of human rights which included torture and murder" and that the Special Branch, which had been "at the heart of this malign force", was still active in the PSNI and had been behind Stormontgate.
However, if the British government honoured its "commitments on policing, including the transfer of power" and the DUP concurred, Sinn Fein would "hold a special conference to debate this matter out fully to arrive at a democratically agreed position". Translation: if republicans are guaranteed control of the police and the justice system and the amputation of the PSNI's intelligence arm, we'll join the police board.
This is a deal which Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair - who talk about law and order at home and sell out the law-abiding in Northern Ireland - would happily accept, as would the apartheid-minded wing of the DUP. However, Ambassador Reiss has principles, is neither a sap nor a mug and is paying close attention to the voices of nationalism and unionism that oppose a sectarian carve-up of Northern Ireland and the emasculation of the PSNI.
In olden days, the full chorus of Old Irish-American Reliables would have been raising a ruckus on Capitol Hill, but informed opinion agrees with Reiss.
At ground level there is disarray among the troops, most of whom can make no sense of the Denis Donaldson revelations since they know Donaldson did wonders for the party in America and laid the groundwork for Friends of Sinn Fein, which has been raising around $1m annually. As Niall O'Dowd put it in the other Irish-American organ, the Irish Voice, "For an admitted British agent, Donaldson actually dampened down dissension in America rather than causing it to flare up, as the British surely wanted." They didn't, of course, since they are in cahoots with the republican leadership, but O'Dowd's confusion reflects that of Irish-America, which is awash with conspiracy theories.
So Adams had to fall back on the dim-witted faithful of the Third Eleven (representatives of, eg, the Brehon Law Societies, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish Parades Emergency Committee), who wrote an open letter to Blair accusing his government of being responsible for bringing down the Assembly and demanding he "immediately" reinstate the political institutions "and make the Good Friday Agreement work".
In an email to me, an old Washington hand described the letter as "scurrilous anti-Brit rubbish from ageing Irish-Americans who know they would not get away with this stuff if they wrote about their own country in such terms. What empty lives they must lead."
Reiss couldn't be in a stronger position to influence events. If he's really tough, he'll tell Adams privately that there will be no fund-raising visas and no invitations to the White House until Sinn Fein endorses the PSNI.