Small steps can go a long way in our politics, as Michelle O’Neill’s attendance at a PSNI graduation ceremony demonstrates.
It is something Sinn Féin should have done long ago. The party has at times dragged its feet over backing the PSNI.
The police service replaced the RUC in 2001 but it wasn’t until 2007 that Sinn Féin took up its seats on the Policing Board. It didn’t promote a PSNI recruitment drive until 2020.
It is regrettable that it has taken Sinn Féin so long to show its support for new officers by going to an attestation event. Nonetheless, Ms O’Neill and Sinn Féin Policing Board member Gerry Kelly have now taken a small but significant step towards securing a more normal relationship between all of our politicians and the police.
Ms O’Neill has pledged to be “a first minister for all”. If that is to have any credibility and substance it will mean venturing into spaces that Sinn Féin has previously avoided.
But it is also vital that the PSNI is a police service for all. It has to be an organisation that fully reflects the community it serves.
Ms O’Neill said she hoped that by attending the ceremony young nationalists would be encouraged to join the police, as well as “women and people from minority backgrounds and members of the LGBTQ community”.
Michelle O’Neill has pledged to be “a first minister for all”. If that is to have any credibility and substance it will mean venturing into spaces that Sinn Féin has previously avoided
It was also an essential message of support for PSNI officers. Political leaders, including Ms O’Neill, came together last year to condemn the dissident republican attack on detective chief inspector John Caldwell. Attending the graduation ceremony underlines that solidarity - especially needed as dissidents continue to target officers.
None of this means that the PSNI should escape criticism when it gets things wrong, as it has done, for example, on too many occasions in relation to providing evidence to legacy cases.
But it should mean that it becomes unremarkable for our politicians to support the PSNI in all its aspects, and that the organisation is held to account through normal democratic structures.
It is important to also acknowledge another positive step made by Ms O’Neill’s fellow executive minister, the DUP’s Paul Givan. His first official visit as education minister was to Rathmore, a Catholic grammar school in Belfast.
These might be small steps but they are hopeful signs that this executive is at least attempting to be respectful and inclusive. Let us hope it continues.