Some huge questions remain about how Sinn Fein might act if they got into power
Culture changes slowly. It would be naive to think the culture of Provisionalism is now fully democratic, writes Dan O'Brien
Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30
Liz O'Donnell became a junior minister in the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1997. During her extended period in that role, she was involved in formulating government policy on Northern Ireland and negotiating with participants in the evolving political process.
Referring to the role of the Provisional movement during her time in office, she wrote last month in her Irish Independent column "many of us had to suspend our critical faculties for the greater good of peace". On more recent developments, she wrote "most of us assumed, perhaps naively, that the IRA had indeed left the stage/been disbanded".
It is hard to see how naivete and the suspension of critical faculties can help anyone in dealing with complex, high-risk situations. Being naive and suspending critical faculties when dealing with ruthless and intelligent people who are steeped in a culture of extremism and militarism is to invite trouble.
That is exactly what happened in the years following the Good Friday Agreement, when high levels of IRA activity continued and went unsanctioned.
The Northern Bank robbery in late 2004 and the murder of Robert McCartney in early 2005 finally led to a shift away from what the Taoiseach of the day, Bertie Ahern, conceded had been the turning of a "blind eye" to Provisional wrong-doing.
There seems little doubt that the scale of Provisional criminality and lawbreaking has declined since, as the two reports on paramilitary activity issued on either side of the Border last week pointed to. But it would require the suspension of critical faculties and gross naivete to believe it has gone away entirely.
This is well illustrated by everything that has happened and not happened since the aforementioned murder of Robert McCartney.
The IRA not only admitted at the time that its members had carried out the killing, but it stated publicly that it would shoot those involved. Because it was so steeped in militarism, the Provisional movement failed to anticipate that everyone on this island who believes in the rule of law over the law of the jungle would be appalled by its "offer". It was hastily withdrawn.
That no convictions have been secured over more than 10 years since says a great deal. More than five dozen people, many of whom were/are Sinn Fein members, were present in the pub from which Robert McCartney was dragged before being stabbed to death. None of these witnesses has ever come forward to give evidence.
There are two possible explanations as to why witnesses have not come forward. First, those in the movement still do not cooperate with the PSNI, despite public claims by Gerry Adams and others leaders that they do so, and public calls for them do so.
The second possibility is that witnesses fear retribution even now if they were to give evidence against the IRA perpetrators. Neither suggests that the movement has become fully democratic.
Add to this cases of alleged sexual abuse by members of the IRA, accusations by those who claim to be victims to have been before kangaroo courts, the conviction of people involved in Sinn Fein for laundering the stolen Northern Bank money and other cases of mafia-like activity and there is every reason to believe that the Provisional movement has a considerable distance to travel before it has fully left behind its non-democratic habits and practices.
Because Sinn Fein could be in power in both jurisdictions simultaneously within months, the extent to which the republican movement has democratised over the past two decades is the single most important question for the politics of this island.
Despite the importance of the question, and in contrast to Sinn Fein's absurd claims that it is unfairly scrutinised on the issue, the evolution of the Provisional movement receives far less focus and critical analysis than it deserves (of the kind, incidentally, that Micheal Martin subjected it to in the Dail last week).
There are a number of reasons for this, but underpinning all of them appears to be the naive assumption that those within orbit of the IRA will organically and automatically absorb the habits and practices of democracy if they operate within democratic institutions.
This can best be summed up by the frequently made assertions that "politics works".
But there is limited evidence to support the belief that those who do not come from a democratic culture will become thorough-going democrats if only the conditions are right. There is no magical automaticity. Democracy is not everyone's default setting.
A common pattern scholars of democratic transitions find internationally is that the process frequently gets stuck in a grey area between undemocratic starting points and the hoped-for end point of full democracy. Northern Ireland's policy today, for instance, resembles less the others on these islands and more that of Bosnia, another post-conflict region where politics has got stuck in a grey area.
It is very easy to understand why democratisation happens slowly and frequent ly doesn't happen at all. Those involved in paramilitarism and the taking of human life inevitably develop a culture of violence, paranoia, suspicion, unquestioning obedience, summary justice and unrestrained excess.
Such values are the polar opposite of the values of democracy - non-violence, healthy questioning of authority, pluralism, acceptance of the rule of law, and restraint.
Because the period during which the Provisional movement was involved in its "war" was so long, the martial culture it developed seeped deep into the movement's marrow. Organisations of any kind do not change culture quickly. Utterly transforming an organisation's culture usually takes a long time, if it happens at all.
The continued existence of such a culture raises serious questions about how Sinn Fein would behave in a range of scenarios if it were in government.
How would the party react if a member or members of either the IRA or Sinn Fein committed a crime? Could it be trusted to ensure that the normal rigours of the law be applied or would it do what it instinctively does - lash out at those who make the accusation?
Even if the party arrived in government with the best democratic intentions, the pressures of governing could easily see it revert to form. How would the movement deal with the almost inevitable decline in support (and increase in derision) that comes with governing?
What would be Sinn Fein's instinct towards the press when the government of which it is a part is being pilloried for its failings on front pages on a daily basis?
And how would it use public resources? Sinn Fein has clearly left-of-centre economic policy preferences. But while the party's emphasis on the redistribution of wealth is perfectly legitimate, it is unclear if it collectively understands the wealth creation process. Much of the commentary from Sinn Fein representatives suggests that they believe there exists a fixed sum of wealth and that taking from one group to give to another does not run the risk of making the overall pie smaller.
If the economy were to slump - for whatever reason - and Sinn Fein's popularity were to decline with it, would it be tempted to squeeze those who don't support it ever harder to extract from them the resources that might shore up its core support base?
Yet another scenario worth considering is the implications for the ever fragile political institutions in the North. Since the Good Friday Agreement and before, the Dublin and London governments have acted as honest brokers, bookending the North's squabbling parties and providing durability to the overall structure.
But if Sinn Fein were in government in the republic, and actively pursing its overarching irredentist goal, the unionist parties in particular would be likely to be much more distrustful of Dublin. At the very least, the already delicate balance would be upset. The entire edifice might well collapse permanently.
It is surely the sincere wish of all democrats on this island that Sinn Fein evolves to become a normal and fully democratic party with none of the baggage of its violent, anti-democratic past. But the Provisional movement is still a distance from that point. Anyone who believes otherwise is naive, at best.