Sinn Féin cannot simply wish the Provos away
Published 24/08/2015 | 02:30
'They haven't gone away you know." It may be the quote that Gerry Adams is most famous for, and now it's the one he wishes would just disappear. The comments were made 20 years ago on Sunday August 13, 1995, and grabbed every front page the following day.
The Sinn Féin president was speaking at a large republican rally in Belfast following a weekend of serious disturbances in several parts of Northern Ireland as republicans objected to loyalist marches passing close to Catholic areas.
Twenty years on, the Troubles may be less public but they remain invidious. The tune from Sinn Féin is now a very different one, with Adams declaring yesterday: "The war is over. The IRA is gone and not coming back."
At the weekend, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) George Hamilton accused IRA members of involvement in the murder of Kevin McGuigan, who was shot dead in Belfast two weeks ago.
The inference that the IRA continues to exist undermines Sinn Féin's assertion that the armed struggle has ended. It also belies their claim that they are now merely an ordinary political party exploring entirely peaceful democratic ways of advancing the cause of the nationalist community that they represent on both sides of the border.
Contradictory assessments from An Garda Siochana and the PSNI about the status of criminal or paramilitary activity within the Provisional IRA organisation have created fresh political problems for Sinn Féin everywhere.
In 2008 the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) stated that the provisional ruling body of the IRA had effectively disbanded as an underground army and no longer met for any terrorist purposes. They did accept however that the army council had not dissolved. There was always a tacit understanding at political level that complete disbandment may not occur overnight.
A certain amount of latitude was rightly or wrongly afforded. However, 10 years after Sinn Féin and the IRA committed themselves to disbandment it is unacceptable that criminal or paramilitary activity is not only happening, but is ignored by the political wing of the organisation.
The statement by the PSNI at the weekend has led to calls from political parties, north and south, for Sinn Féin to clarify matters.
In the North, DUP MP Jeffery Donaldson rightly points out: "We can't ignore this reality. It's incompatible with a republican movement that wants to be part of a government." The DUP are seeking an urgent meeting with Secretary of State Theresa Villers over the future of the Stormont administration.
In the South, political parties will not ignore these developments either. Their hope is that by reminding voters of Sinn Féin's not-too-distant past, they can halt their political progress with younger voters who seem unperturbed by the "Troubles" of Sinn Féins past. To date, the party's history is not something that has affected their appeal in the South when it comes to public opinion. Notwithstanding high-profile political difficulties, the party have continued to increase their solid standing in polls.
Perhaps historically the voting public have learned to expect the worst from Sinn Féin when it comes to upholding justice and these recent revelations will not impinge on their electoral success.
As a political party who have navigated their way from guerrilla warfare to government in Northern Ireland, the prospect of their elevation to government here remains a real possibility.
The latest developments, however, involve another axis. It revolves around the State's ability to monitor and arrest any remaining criminal and paramilitary legacy issues left over from the peace process.
Last February Garda Commissioner Noírín O'Sullivan wrote to Pádraig MacLochlaínn, the Sinn Feín justice spokesperson. The letter stated that An Garda Siochána had no evidence to support the claim that the Provisional IRA were involved in criminal activities: an extraordinary declaration, leaving the Commissioner - and by extension this State - an unbelievable hostage to fortune should criminal activity recommence (as is apparently happening now).
Moreover, it allowed Sinn Féin yet another blanket of cover to trumpet their political normalisation while affording them another opportunity to complain about biased media coverage. They attached the Commissioner's letter to a press release and hit send.
Six months out from a probable general election in the South, the "constructive ambiguity" that is in operation in relation to certain types of criminal-related cross-border behaviour will provide a fresh focus of attention on the Department of Justice.
It poses some difficult questions for the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner, who seemed to have finally calmed the waters following a series of disastrous justice-related problems which dogged the Government for almost a year.
It also raises questions about the cross-border co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Siochána. If their views are so divergent, perhaps the lack of resources and historical knowledge that have recently left An Garda Siochana is a factor that has left southern policing looking at best naive and at worst exposed.
As republican leaders continue to reap the rewards of the peace process north and south of the border, the status of the IRA is a real and live concern because it calls into question Sinn Féin's ability to control the forces they once used as a fulcrum for political negotiation. It also calls into question their commitment to purely peaceful democratic solutions to political problems.
Maybe the IRA have not gone away entirely, but Sinn Féin just wish they would.