Police forces must decide if Provos are terrorists or just ordinary criminals
Published 21/10/2015 | 00:00
After two months of raging controversy, with a fallout that included the destabilisation of Stormont, it all appears now to boil down to a question of definition.
What constitutes an army council or a military department in a former terrorist organisation that has officially ceased to operate?
When do senior Provisional IRA figures lose their titles, even though they still wield the power they enjoyed over their underlings and their terrified communities?
And at what stage in their lengthy careers can they be branded as ordinary criminals rather than terrorists or "politically motivated" activists?
After last month's police conference in Sligo on cross-border organised crime, Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan insisted she was on the same page as PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton in their assessments of the current status of the Provisional IRA.
The publication of the two assessments does support her view - albeit with some nuanced differences.
Ms O'Sullivan argues that while persons who had been linked with the Provisional army council continued to associate, there is no evidence of an army council meeting or functioning in this jurisdiction. She says there is evidence that a type of "residual leadership", committed to peaceful means, continues to exist.
The Northern assessment, based on intelligence from the PSNI and the British security agency, MI5, agrees that the IRA's leadership structures, including the army council, remain in existence in a reduced form.
But, worryingly, it reports that IRA members still hold the view the army council oversees the IRA and Sinn Fein "with an overarching strategy".
That strategy may have a wholly political focus, but it remains a serious cause for concern if controlled by people who still regard themselves as leaders of a paramilitary organisation.
The Garda Commissioner acknowledges that the issues surrounding the continued existence of the Provisional IRA are complex, and to say it exists without further clarification would mean very little and likely to be misleading.
But a similar argument applies to saying that the Provisional IRA and its military structures do not exist.
And that is what the commissioner said last February when she wrote that the Garda held no information or intelligence to support the assertion of 'Sunday Independent' journalist Jim Cusack that "the Provisional IRA still maintains its military structure and confines its criminal activities to fuel laundering, cigarette smuggling and counterfeiting".
It lacked the clarification and nuance that yesterday's report contained and, as a result, not only supplied Sinn Féin with a useful tool in its armoury for door-to-door canvassing - but also flatly contradicted Jim Cusack's opinion, which now turns out to be fully vindicated.
That tool has now been decommissioned by the two reports.