SF won't be credible until it shakes off the mantras from old days of State subversion
No one should minimise the journey travelled by Irish republicans from war to politics. It has been a spectacular example of transition from all-out armed struggle against British military might and state security agencies to a gradual engagement, negotiations and, ultimately, a political settlement. The peace process, and Sinn Féin's contribution to it, has transformed Northern Ireland and delivered a comprehensive settlement ending the vexed quarrel between the UK and Ireland over the North.
Sinn Féin, in power-sharing government in Northern Ireland since 2007, has also become a significant political player in the Republic with a mandate for its radical leftist policies. But its advance electorally in the south, while impressive, is regularly interrupted by the party's collision with its own legacy issues. The controversy over the Special Criminal Court is just the latest.
For years, retention of weapons held back Sinn Féin's political advance, at least in the Republic. But it was strategic. However unpalatable in a democracy, Sinn Féin leveraged many concessions over the years of the peace process by retention of a massive arsenal. Its participation in talks leading to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was meant to be on the basis of permanent ceasefire and commitment to exclusively peaceful means. But there were breaches of ceasefires by paramilitary groups on both sides. The problem was that decommissioning of weapons was seen by Sinn Féin/IRA as an outcome of a final settlement rather than as a precondition for negotiations or progress in the talks. Indeed, ambiguity on weapons decommissioning was a major flaw in the Good Friday Agreement, but it was the best that could be extracted by the governments from Sinn Féin negotiators. So unionists led by David Trimble had to make do with vague language that weapons would be "put beyond use" in the future and side letters from then British PM Tony Blair.
George Mitchell, by now exasperated by republicans' retention of weapons - like dogs with bones - was reduced to talking about the "decommissioning of the mind-set". In the end the issue was parked in the remit of the International Decommissioning Body under General John de Chastelain.
This tardiness by republicans on weapons handover was to undermine and delay progress in implementing the agreement and stabilising the institutions. As it turned out, it was to be almost 10 years after the Good Friday Agreement before credible decommissioning of IRA weapons was to take place and was verified by the International Decommissioning Body.
That same delay eroded support for the UUP, which was overtaken electorally by the DUP. The fact is Ian Paisley would not share government with Sinn Féin until the weapons were verifiably decommissioned, and he was right. The principles of democracy (so frequently cited these days by Sinn Féin deputies) demanded it.
The reluctance to decommission was tied to the notion of "no surrender" to the enemy. Sinn Féin will still claim that IRA volunteers did not surrender or lose the armed campaign. It denied that the 1996 post-ceasefire killing of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe was authorised, yet it consistently argued for his killers to be released under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. It denied the Northern Bank robbery, yet it has been comprehensively attributed to the IRA. It denies hiding republican child abusers and rapists and helping them to evade justice. It denied IRA involvement in the killing of Robert McCartney. It asserts that Thomas 'Slab' Murphy, known to be the leader of the IRA in South Armagh and a convicted tax offender, is a "good republican".
The evasions and denials over weapons decommissioning and other internal military matters are typical of the self-justifying ethos of the organisation. The party's opposition to the Special Criminal Court is just another example of old loyalties to the volunteers of the armed struggle. Hundreds of militant republicans, including some elected Sinn Féin politicians, have been before the Special Criminal Court for charges ranging from membership of illegal organisations and possession of weapons to murder.
The Offences against the State Act 1939 allows for the establishment of special courts when the security of the State is at risk. Successive governments since 1972 have used the non-jury Special Criminal Court for the trials of provisional IRA and other republicans and, to a lesser extent, for trials of organised criminals.
This is primarily to protect witnesses and juries from intimidation. It is a busy court, so busy that another one is being initiated to deal with a backlog of 42 cases pending for dissident republicans. There is no question of the court being obsolete.
It's no surprise that Sinn Féin's policy is to abolish the court and repeal the Offences Against the State Act. After all, its "own boys" have been its principle clients. But it is another example of the ghost of the past hanging over the present.
Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald will claim their policy is based on the need for the "highest standards of justice in a democratic system", hitching their wagon to Amnesty International and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, who also oppose non-jury courts.
But the policy is politically disastrous in the light of two gangland murders in Dublin in the space of four days, allowing opponents to label Sinn Féin, perhaps opportunistically, as "soft" on gangland crime. My hunch is that gangland criminals would fear violent republicans more than gardaí.
The truth is, it is just another example of Sinn Féin struggling to decouple its present status as a political party from its past as an armed paramilitary organisation.
Although abolishing the court is a long-standing policy of the party, Mr Adams conceded under pressure that the matter was "not a priority" or a red line issue. But it's an inconvenient hangover from the old days of not recognising the court and 'tiocfaidh ár lá'. To be credible, Sinn Féin needs to shake off these mantras from the old days of State subversion. Despite the hysterics in the media, this controversy will not make a blind bit of difference to the Sinn Féin core vote; such legacy issues - and worse - are already factored in by supporters. But it may affect transfers to the party on polling day.
Most critically, because of the leadership's inability to abandon outdated fixed positions, many will conclude the party is not yet ready to govern in the South.