It's time we stopped ignoring the elephant with the Armalite
Published 22/10/2015 | 02:30
The report into paramilitary activity pulled no punches. The IRA remains armed, it has an army council which IRA members believe controls Sinn Féin. It retains "regional command structures", presumably brigades in different areas.
It has "departments" to run day-to-day business - in the past, these departments have been finance, security, intelligence, operations and so on. This is a titanic admission.
The IRA is still very much in business. The whole shebang, albeit it in a reduced form, remains up and running. So what actually did disappear when we were fed the line that the IRA had gone away? Not much, it now appears.
Everybody expected peace to be messy and challenging. But no one thought that, 21 years after its ceasefire, the Provisional IRA would remain so resiliently in place.
In any other European democracy, Tuesday's report would have caused a crisis. A party in government in the North is intrinsically linked to a murder machine. And that party could be in government in the Republic in a few months time.
Yet it appears the inconvenient truths about Sinn Féin and the IRA are no sooner revealed, than they are quickly brushed aside. So are we prepared to continue ignoring the elephant with the Armalite sitting comfortably near the heart of government?
In the North, the answer seems a resounding yes. The revelations in the paramilitary activity report weren't news to British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers. She acknowledged that she has heard similar briefings from the PSNI and the intelligence services.
So it seems that the British are prepared to have an armed IRA exist, providing it's not at war with the state nor targeting police officers, soldiers, prison officers and the like.
And what of the DUP, the party which was always insistent that the IRA would have to be eradicated before it did business with Sinn Féin? The 2007 DUP manifesto said: "All paramilitary and criminal activity and terrorist structures must be abandoned before Sinn Féin is admitted to government."
Yet despite Tuesday's damning report into paramilitary activity, the DUP was back in government with the IRA's political off-shoot an hour later.
Unionist critics say the DUP's U-turn is motivated solely by a lust for the power, privilege and position that holding office in Stormont brings.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt believes the will just isn't there to address the issue of the IRA. He described yesterday's Stormont talks as "like the episode of 'Fawlty Towers' where everyone is told 'Don't mention the war'.
"Three times, I attempted to bring up the issue of the existence of the IRA army council. The first time I was admonished for doing so and on the other two occasions I was just ignored," Nesbitt said.
"There was not a meaningful discussion about the fact that the report says the IRA exists. Nobody wanted to address that, particularly not the Irish Government."
Such inaction and apathy effectively gives the IRA the go-ahead for business as usual. And it's working-class Catholics in the North who will continue to bear the brunt of this official indifference.
The IRA is no threat to the organs of the state. Those at risk from the Provos are those who have the misfortune to cross them in their own community. Working-class men like Robert McCartney, Paul Quinn, and Kevin McGuigan.
The report revealed that the IRA is continuing intelligence gathering on dissident republicans and is attempting to identify informers. There can be no benign reason for these activities and we know all too well where they can lead.
In 1999, Charles Bennett, a 22-year-old taxi-driver whom the IRA alleged was an informer, was found murdered in west Belfast with his hands tied behind his back and a pillow case over his head. "Internal housekeeping," was how a Northern Ireland Office official described it.
That disgraceful doctrine still seems to be in place today. As long as it's Catholic civilians, not cops, in the firing line, numerous blind eyes are turned. 'They can take a beating or a bullet for the peace process,' is de facto official policy.
The PSNI and the intelligence services on both sides of the Border have pursued dissident republicans with a vengeance and have secured remarkable results, with many of these groups' leaders behind bars.
But no similar resources have been used to pursue the Provisional IRA. Their clandestine meetings aren't secretly recorded so taped conversations can be used to bring charges before the courts; nor are their weapons bugged so they can be followed and those with the guns arrested.
The men who ran the war are still calling the shots and why wouldn't they? Nobody in power is prepared to hand them their P45s and they've no intention of choosing voluntary retirement themselves.
Since the peace process began, they have literally managed to get away with murder on countless occasions. Despite a bit of a brouhaha after an incident, things have soon settled down.
The dead body - this time Kevin McGuigan's - is removed and the political pantomime goes on. P O'Neill has no intention of leaving the stage.