The claims caused panic across the Northern Ireland's political spectrum, with the Policing Board's chairman, Professor Des Rea, issuing a warning to the British Government that no deals can be brokered which would affect the current policing arrangements. The furore centres on allegations that Sinn Féin is currently involved in secret talks with the British Government to expand the Community Restorative Justice (CRJ) network across nationalist areas of Northern Ireland. CRJ currently has offices in republican districts of north and west Belfast, Derry and south Armagh and works by bringing the perpetrator and victim together through dialogue. It is widely seen in Northern Ireland as an alternative to conventional policing in areas where the PSNI is not accepted by the community.
Although the idea of restorative justice is not new, the SDLP accuses CRJ in the north of being "manipulated by the Provisional movement".
"These people turn up in a car with known members of the Provisional movement and tell people what they have to do," said Alban Maginness, the SDLP's justice spokesman.
"We all know that CRJ is in fact manipulated by the provisionals and any attempt to get the British government to recognise it and give legitimacy to it is really an attempt to expand provisional control in working-class areas.
"Sinn Féin needs to bite the bullet on policing and accept the PSNI as it is."
Sinn Féin has denied the claims and accused the SDLP of 'trying to prevent change'.
"The SDLP's opposition to Community Restorative Justice has nothing at all to do with these schemes or the way they operate," said Sinn Féin's policing spokesman Gerry Kelly. "The SDLP has in effect become part of a new policing establishment determined to prevent the sort of changes necessary to deliver Patten and deliver an accountable policing service."
The debate, however, is a sign of the division over policing in Northern Ireland, particularly within the nationalist community. Sinn Féin is expected to endorse policing arrangements when security powers are devolved to Stormont, should the power-sharing assembly be resurrected. However the party still argues that policing reforms have not gone far enough; in reality, an endorsement of the PSNI will be a hard pill for many republicans to swallow. Despite an increase in the number of Catholics serving in the PSNI – now around 17 per cent of the force – the PSNI is still regarded by most nationalists as pro-Unionist.