Eilis O'Hanlon: The real threat to the country doesn't come from dissidents
The public needs to be reassured that the Garda Commissioner is up to the challenge ahead
Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30
As the country heads towards the centenary of the 1916 Rising, rather like the Titanic steaming towards that iceberg, Sinn Fein is steadily upping its assault on what it regards as the hypocrisy of mainstream parties for celebrating violence in the name of Irish freedom 100 years ago whilst deploring it 20, 30 and 40 years ago in the name of the IRA.
On Thursday, that campaign reached an orgiastic crescendo with a triumphalist rally at Dublin's Mansion House as SF president Gerry Adams made his most explicit connection yet between the Provisional IRA and the Easter Rising, before staking his party's own claim to be the one to complete that unfinished business.
There was palpable glee as SF got to pose alongside armed men again, even if they were only in fancy dress. The paramilitary symbolism was unambiguously menacing.
The situation is complicated by the fact that SF has a point. Unless one takes a position such as that of former Taoiseach John Bruton, who regards events at Easter as a betrayal of the constitutional nationalist campaign of John Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party, then Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour will always be open to a charge of double standards in deciding that it was acceptable for Pearse, Connolly and others to take up arms against British rule in 1916 but not for those claiming to be acting in the same cause in 1970s Belfast.
The same gaping hypocrisy exists in SF's position too, however. In taking away the right to make value judgements about the legitimacy of one armed insurrection over another, it also undermine its own moral right to oppose dissident republicans. If all rebellions are equal and none more equal than others, then it is in no more of a position to oppose the current crop of republican dissidents than constitutionalists on the centre ground of politics are to deplore the Provos.
The question of republican dissident activity has been brought into focus once more by Assistant Garda Commissioner John O'Mahoney, who, showing off the latest cache of discovered weapons, warned of a growing capability of groups such as the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireann to launch gun and bomb attacks on both sides of the Border.
The finds, all two years' worth of them, were hailed as a "significant blow" to those organisations' ambitions, but some cynical eyebrows were raised at the decision to highlight at this time the danger posed by dissidents. Understandably so. It's hard to shake the suspicion that they keep wheeling out these weapons to convince the public that such groups not only have a capacity to kill, which was never in doubt, but that they also pose some deeper existential threat to the State. It would be wrong not to take dissidents seriously. The murder of Garda Tony Golden in Co Louth by known dissident republican Adrian Mackin tragically proved what can be done by those in their ranks with access to weapons.
But do they really pose any threat beyond the immediate one to life?
This time last year, the most senior police officer in charge of anti-terrorist operations in the North, was warning that dissidents were learning from Islamic State and the Taliban.
Last June, sources also claimed that the so called 'engineering section' of Oglaigh na hEireann had developed sophisticated rocket-fuelled anti-tank missiles of a sort used by Hamas to attack Israel.
Dissidents surely couldn't believe their luck to be spoken of in the same breath as major international terrorist organisations when, in practice, they more closely resemble criminal gangs - with an ability to cause death, certainly, but with no hope of ever wielding real power or influence, except over a few hundred hotheads motivated as much by money as "freeing" Ireland.
The real existential threat to the State was on swaggering display at that triumphalist rally at the Mansion House last week.
Dissidents are simply Mini Me to the Provisional IRA's Dr Evil, yet still there is what looks like a deliberate, repeated effort to play up the short-term threat from the former and downplay the continuing long-term threat from the latter. The Garda report into the current status of the republican movement last September barely touched on the murder only weeks earlier of former IRA hard man Kevin McGuigan in Belfast, whilst Gerry Adams' credentials are still taken at face value when, with a straight face, he offers to act as an intermediary in talks with dissident groups.
SF continues to reap the benefits from the extraordinary letter which Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan sent to Padraig Mac Loughlin TD last February, which appeared to back his party's push to rubbish any claims that the IRA was still active. Asked directly, on her first appearance as head of the force before the Dail's Justice Committee, whether the IRA still existed, she persisted in refusing to give a straight yes or no answer.
By October, a report confirmed that the army council did indeed remain intact and that members believe it even exercised control over SF with an "overarching strategy".
Three months on from that assessment, the country doesn't need to see the Assistant Commissioner showing off some rusty weapons seized from gangsters posing as guerillas. It needs the Commissioner herself to pro-actively put right the damage done by her comments and to reassure the public that the force has a handle on SF/IRA.
PSNI assistant chief constable Bill Kerr warned last year that dissidents would use the 1916 anniversary to justify their armed campaign. It's becoming increasingly clear that those seeking to do that are much closer to home.
Not the 'Real IRA', but the real IRA.