At the August meeting of the Leisure Services Committee, I proposed that the committee write to Michael Mates, the Minister of State responsible for security. In its letter, the committee pointed out that while three Sinn Fein councillors were members of the committee responsible for these civic properties, the terrorist wing of the republican movement, the IRA, was bombing council property. The letter went on to urge the minister to proscribe Sinn Fein and so remove its members from councils in Ulster.
After a delay of several months we have just received a reply from the minister's private secretary. He makes one important point about the Government's attitude to that organisation:
The Government does not believe that Sinn Fein should be dealt with as an ordinary political party, because of its unacceptable stance on the use of violence for political ends.
Unfortunately, however, the Government has failed to apply that principle in any meaningful way. The restriction on Sinn Fein's access to the media is little more than a sham when the words of Sinn Fein spokesmen are simply read out by actors. According to the private secretary's letter, the only significant way in which the Government treats Sinn Fein differently from other political parties is that 'neither ministers nor officials engage in political dialogue with Sinn Fein'.
However, when we come to the only political arena in which Sinn Fein is represented, namely local councils, even that option is not available. We find the courts compelling councils to treat Sinn Fein in exactly the same way as genuine and democratic parties. Councils are therefore unable to apply the principle of not treating Sinn Fein as an ordinary party.
Even if the Government refuses to ban Sinn Fein, it has a responsibility to protect councils that seek to implement the principle set out in the private secretary's letter. The ultimate responsibility for this situation lies with the Westminster government that created the legislation governing the operation of local councils.
What steps does the Government propose to take to ensure that local councils are able to treat Sinn Fein differently from ordinary political parties? Indeed, Belfast City Council has written back to Mr Mates asking this question.