Shadow of a gunman still falls on Sinn Fein
The suspected IRA murder of a man in Belfast raises again the question of who really runs Gerry Adams' party, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
If a man was shot dead tonight in Dublin, it would be a matter for the police. It would be unlikely to provoke a political crisis in the Dail; and Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail would not be dragged into the mess, because those parties do not have military wings, and do not deal with those who cross them by gunning them down in the street.
That the shooting dead of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast more than a week ago is now proving to be such a headache for Sinn Fein, points once more to the semi-constitutional status which continues to dog that party. SF does have a military wing, albeit one which is supposedly not only on ceasefire but permanently defunct, and that military wing does deal with its enemies by putting them in coffins.
Moreover, the party continues to be headed by a man who sentimentally eulogises the IRA's traditions, whilst still insisting that he was never a member.
That lingering whiff of sulphur partly explains SF's appeal to disillusioned, disaffected youth voters. The whiff has to be kept to a subtle background aroma, however. Once it becomes a stench, it's much harder to go on romanticising the IRA, the way Adams and others have been cynically doing in the run up to the centenary of 1916, painting them as the natural heirs to the Easter Rising to thus retrospectively justify the later atrocities in the North as notches on the bedpost of Irish freedom.
Young people who don't have direct memories of the Troubles, getting their history instead from sources with all the intellectual integrity of an episode of Reeling in the Years, may be fooled when past violence is sugar-coated in nostalgia. It's harder to do when they're watching it play out again in real time on the Six One News.
Suddenly it's not then, but now. Not yesterday, but today, and maybe tomorrow as well, because who knows what will happen next?
Whether the perpetrators of this latest murder - which was believed to be carried out by a shadow group calling itself "Action Against Drugs" with the cooperation of the IRA, in retaliation for the murder of another Belfast man, Gerard "Jock" Davison, in April - happen to be current members, former members, freelance members, or whatever-you're-having-yourself members was always going to be the excuse to allow SF to wriggle off the hook. So it has proved.
Bang on cue, after days when the political implications of this murder threatened to have some actual consequences for once, Northern Ireland's Chief Constable George Hamilton has said that, yes, the IRA did it, but, no, the IRA did not do it, because the IRA is "not on a war footing" and members are "not involved in paramilitary activity in the sense that they were during the conflict".
This is what as known as answering a question that wasn't even asked, because who said the IRA was still "on a war footing"? No one. And who said its members are still "involved in paramilitary activity in the sense that they were during the conflict"? No one.
What they said was that the IRA, as Gerry Adams so smugly boasted at a rally, "haven't gone away, you know", and that the republican movement's credibility, when it comes to being committed to "exclusively peaceful and democratic means", remains dubious.
To these actual serious questions, no answers are forthcoming.
Instead, fudge is back on the menu. Just as it was when Paul Quinn was beaten to death by the IRA in 2007, but everyone decided not to make a fuss. Just as it was right back at the start of this squalid process of turning a blind eye to serial killers when a young taxi driver called Charles Bennett was murdered by the IRA in 1999 as a present to hardliners.
On that occasion, then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was asked directly in the Dail whether the murder of Bennett constituted a breach of the ceasefire. The rot had already set in back then, as he replied that the Brits did not regard it as such, and nor did he.
Laughably, Ahern also asked the IRA "to control in so far as they can - and, hopefully, that is completely - people who carry out such deeds". It's a wonder that he didn't add "pretty please", just to make the humiliation complete.
It was a woeful failure to stand up against thuggish tyranny then, and it still is now. Effectively, the British and Irish governments have said to people in Northern Ireland that they're just going to have to put up with the odd murder now and then, because keeping SF and the IRA sweet is more important than protecting people from them or holding them to account when blood is spilled.
As a result, we're trapped in an Orwellian nightmare where the real threat to peace doesn't come from those who commit violence, but from those who refuse to shut up about it and let boys with guns have their fun. Where those who refuse to believe lies are condemned more strongly than those who tell them. SF instantly went to ground and stayed silent in the hope that the IRA could avoid blame.
That's what they need to be held accountable for. For always putting the IRA first. For caring more about backstreet thugs than for democratic process.
There was a time when all this could be dismissed as a Northern problem; as squalid cat and mouse games played between Belfast hard men, the police, and opportunistic politicians in Stormont using each violent incident as an excuse to collapse whatever institutions happened to be up and running at the time unless they got some juicy concessions quickly.
It's no longer possible to keep murderers in Belfast at arm's length, because SF is becoming increasingly bullish about its chances of being in government in Dublin after the next election, which adds further urgency to the question: who exactly runs SF?
Mary Lou McDonald has been enjoying herself in recent weeks, as republicans dress up and play soldiers at 1916 re-enactments, hoping all the while that some of that old-time mystique rubs off on the party in the polls. What she didn't need was a reminder of the IRA monkey on SF's back, though she can hardly be surprised that it's riding there triumphantly.
Last autumn, she had an opportunity to stamp her authority, on behalf of a new generation of republicans untainted by the Northern conflict, on to the party, by insisting that they apologise and make amends to Mairia Cahill when the Belfast woman came forward with her testimony of having been subjected to an IRA kangaroo court after accusing a senior member of the terrorist group in the city of rape. Instead, SF went on the offensive.
That process reached a nadir of awfulness last year when Adams stood on the podium at a SF conference in Belfast and cruelly, ruthlessly, threw Mairia's reputation to the wolves in the audience.
Mary Lou sat supportively in the front row that day, but it wasn't the Dublin woman who caught the attention of anyone with knowledge of Belfast republicanism, but the senior members of the IRA who were sitting throughout the hall in new SF guises.
To anyone with eyes to see, it was a powerful expression of who's still in charge of SF. Not those nice new Shinners bustling up and down the corridors of Dail Eireann, preparing for government, but backstreet thugs from Belfast with blood on their hands and no regrets on their consciences, preparing to tell those others what to do when the time comes.
Now the genie is out of the bottle. SF can no longer pretend it's wedded exclusively to peaceful and democratic means, when it's actually wedded to the Provos, and the Provos are still wedded to the gun, whatever lies the political establishment tells to protect them.