Tuesday 27 September 2016

Did we really think the Provo hard men would just leave the stage?

Published 25/08/2015 | 02:30

There's a bitter irony about the fact that Kevin McGuigan's murder took place just a day shy of the 20th anniversary of Gerry Adams's infamous remark in Belfast that the "IRA hadn't gone away".

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If the PSNI is to be believed, despite all the enormous progress in the intervening two decades, it still hasn't.

Shocking though the remarks of the PSNI's chief constable undoubtedly are, they're not hugely surprising. The idea that the hard men and women of the PIRA, and all its organisational infrastructure, were going to vanish entirely - leaving themselves and the IRA's considerable business empire vulnerable and the pitch open for dissidents and criminal organisations - was always a touch naive.

The PIRA is committed to the ballot box rather than the armalite. But beyond that, there are serious questions. Is it still, as claimed by Michéal Martin yesterday, involved in the protection of funding sources, intelligence gathering and "community control" with the aim of supporting Sinn Féin's political project? It's a legitimate question, particularly in the light of the PSNI's assertion at the weekend about some current and former PIRA members continuing to engage in criminal activity.

The argument has been made that Sinn Féin cannot be held accountable for the activities of individual former IRA members who decide to continue the kind of criminal business activities that existed during the Troubles. That's fair enough - as long as they are not operating with the explicit, or even implicit, authorisation of their former command structure, particularly a command structure we're told doesn't exist anymore.

The Republican movement is emphatic in its insistence that they're not. It strongly condemns the smuggling, extortion and racketeering that some former 'Volunteers' are undoubtedly engaged in, particularly around the Border.

The problem is their track record of such denials isn't great. They were equally emphatic in denying IRA involvement in the murder of Jerry McCabe and the Northern Bank robbery, for example.

The measured way in which the two senior PSNI policemen, particularly George Hamilton, made their statements means they cannot be easily dismissed. Mr Hamilton wasn't saying the PIRA was still involved in terrorism/paramilitary activity - he stressed it was now promoting a peaceful, political and republican agenda - or had sanctioned the shooting dead of Kevin McGuigan.

But, he added, some of the PIRA structures from the 1990s remain "broadly in place" - albeit for a radically different purpose - and some members, current and former, were continuing to engage in criminal activity and occasional violence for "personal gain or personal agendas".

That line appears to conflict with the assessment of the Garda Commissioner Nóirín O'Sullivan last February. She said then her force had no information or intelligence to support the assertions the Provisionals still maintained military structures or involvement in criminal activities.

One of the two police forces in Ireland is wrong. Perhaps this conflict lies at the heart of the extremely weak, 'nothing to see here', response on Sunday from Frances Fitzgerald.

Of course, the government of the day has to tread carefully. Nobody wants to undermine the progress made since 1998. But that doesn't explain the feebleness of the Justice Minister's equivocation.

The suggestion has been made that Fine Gael feared taking a tough line would damage the party in Border constituencies - that it would stand accused of undermining the Peace Process. If that is the reason, it's an embarrassingly anaemic one.

The reality is that Sinn Féin has a chance - albeit very much an outside one -of leading the next government here.

That makes it incumbent on other parties, not to make political capital from these events, but to ask the necessary questions raised by the PSNI's statements. Mr Martin and also Environment Minister Alan Kelly have done that. For whatever reason, Frances Fitzgerald, in probably her first mis-step since becoming Justice Minister, did not.

There's no question the suggestions of the PIRA's continuing existence are hugely embarrassing for Sinn Féin - the strength of Mr Adams's insistence they have gone away is in stark contrast to his rabble rousing of 20 years ago.

But it's hugely doubtful they will do any damage electorally to the party north or south of the Border. The hugely serious revelations by Maíria Cahill and others about the cover-up of sex abuse do not seem to have had any impact on Sinn Féin's poll ratings.

Mr Adams's 2014 arrest and questioning for four days in relation to the murder of Jean McConville, contrary to all predictions, had no discernible influence on the subsequent European and local elections.

Sinn Féin continues to consistently poll close to the 20pc mark, with further research showing its supporters are the least likely to shift allegiance of any party. Nothing, not even aligning itself with Syriza's disastrous attempt to force the Troika to back down, appears to change that. The disillusionment of some voters with the mainstream parties is that strong.

The spectre of the IRA would certainly alienate a percentage of the electorate, particularly middle class voters. But it may only be those people who had no intention of voting Sinn Féin anyway, already regarding the party as toxic.

The reality is regardless of what emerges, Sinn Féin is going to do extremely well in the next General Election. Not as well as its poll rating - it never does - but it is still on course to win 25-plus seats.

That reality alone demands that the tough questions are put to the party, not least from the government of the day and its Justice Minister.

Shane Coleman presents the 'Sunday Show' on newstalk.com at 10am

Irish Independent

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