Has the IRA gone away or not remains unanswered

Illustration by Jim Cogan

Eoghan Harris

Last Wednesday, at the Oireachtas Justice Committee, Senator James Heffernan asked the Garda Commissioner the most important question in Irish politics: does the IRA exist or not?

Chillingly, the Garda Commissioner repeatedly refused to say yes or no. The few who read a report of that extraordinary exchange tell me they took that refusal as a yes.

I say 'the few who read' it because the episode got almost no coverage in the media. Thinking about that should give you serious cause for concern.

Why is the fact that the party well poised to take State power may be secretly controlled by an armed criminal conspiracy not seen as a major news story?

To my mind, it is not only a major news story. It is the most important story of all. As it has been for most of my adult life.

But then most of my colleagues, unlike me, seem to believe that the IRA was stood down at the end of the peace process.

Me, I don't believe that at all. I believe that in pursuit of peace at almost any price, the British and Irish Governments turned a blind eye to how Adams & Co actually went about delivering the the peace.

The Provo leadership did not suddenly abandon their dream of a united Ireland. But they knew a tactical peace deal was critical to winning State power in the Irish Republic as well as in Northern Ireland.

So the following deal was done. The IRA would deliver the peace process. In return, they would be allowed to continue their criminal activities.

Yes, a great deal of arms were given up, but then you don't need an arsenal to terrorise South Armagh. Iron bars will do the job.

Admittedly, I have never taken anything Sinn Fein say at face value. As Edmund Burke says, we should believe all possible evil of evil people.

Most people who joined the Provisional IRA were not evil people. But they ended up condoning evil things.

From the start of the armed struggle, I always felt that the Provisional IRA posed a special threat to Irish democracy because of our ambivalence about political violence.

That is why I took such a hard line in support of Section 31 which prevented Provo IRA spokespersons - but not their supporters - from making propaganda on RTE.

So I was a bit baffled by Pat Rabbitte's broadside against RTE last week. Why didn't he deal with the problem himself when he was Minister for Communications?

Better still, why did he not ask party colleague Alex White, currently Minister for Communications, to raise the roof with RTE, particularly RTE radio?

Alex White is well placed to enlighten Rabbitte on RTE's radical-chic political culture. As a young radio producer, he was one of my chief opponents in the Section 31 struggle which raged in RTE in the 1980s.

White came from a radical background in UCD student politics. Patrick Smyth, writing in the Irish Times of March 2011, recalled that "Alex White and Seamus Healy were at one stage members of the much smaller LWR [League for A Workers' Republic]".

Like all Trotskyite groups, the LWR gave what they called "critical support" to the Provisional campaign.

As a leading activist against Section 31 in RTE, White got proof in 1987 that the partisan feelings of his fellow radio producers had become dangerously distorted.

That's because in 1987, an FWUI trade union meeting of radio producers refused to pass a motion condemning the Enniskillen bombing. In protest, I resigned from the same union and wrote a document detailing how Provo ideas were influential in RTE.

The long legacy of that Enniskillen meeting still lingers in the radio corridors of RTE. And while Rabbitte's intervention was a bit rich, the Labour Party correctly focused its concerns on RTE radio.

That's because the radio producers who refused to condemn the Enniskillen bombing continued to influence radio current affairs. That's why remnants of that long-ago Section 31 struggle still linger in RTE radio. In sharp contrast, RTE television is largely free of radical-chic agendas.

In proof of which, I can cite Miriam O Callaghan's hard questioning of Martin McGuinness, Prime Time's investigation into fuel laundering along the Border and last Monday's Above the Law.

This dealt with what can only be called the torture and sometimes murder of those - many of them teenagers - who offended IRA or Loyalist godfathers. The highest number of assaults - 357 - was reported in the Provo IRA fiefdom of West Belfast.

Gerard Marley was a typical 15-year-old tearaway teenager. But he made the mistake of taunting an IRA man. He was badly beaten twice.

The second time, they beat him with an iron bar. His father Thomas said, "They broke him, they broke his spirit." Gerard killed himself in 1997.

That was in 1998, not in another age. Anyone of 35 and over who supports Sinn Fein, and who stays silent, is condoning these crimes.

So are politicians and journalists who do not join Senator Heffernan in asking whether the IRA exists. Not while the Pied Piper is leading this generation to a foggy future.

Because while politicians prattle and pundits waffle, the Republic is slouching towards the Sinn Fein stable where some rough beast is waiting to be born.

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Frank O'Connor's Guests of the Nation is not just one of the world's greatest short stories, but a moral lodestone for generations of Irish republicans struggling to free themselves of the IRA's murderous ideology.

A few years ago, Pat Talbot put on a powerful stage adaptation of Guests of the Nation in the Everyman theatre in Cork. He has now taken three other stories by O'Connor - My Oedipus Complex, The Genius and First Confession - and fused them into a new play.

God Bless The Child opens at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin next Tuesday March 31, will run for two weeks through Easter, and then return to the Everyman in Cork. Not to be missed.

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A brief word about Elaine O Hara. From time to time I would buy a paper from her at the newsagents where she worked in the Blackrock Shopping Centre. It was hard to believe the same quiet person was the sad and lonely victim in a lurid murder case.

Like most people, I found it harrowing to follow the trial. But Dearbhail McDonald in the Irish Independent, by what Aristotle called "a proper arrangement of the incidents" purged our soul with pity and terror and showed us the tragedy.

The complete Irish Independent coverage is a classic of modern Irish journalism. And McDonald's absorbing account of the trial on the Late Late Show was a tour de force too. She gave Elaine back her humanity and her femininity by not concealing her own.

Barry Cummins, Prime Time's crime correspondent, showed his lack of ego as well as enormous broadcasting intelligence by not butting in while Dearbhail McDonald chronicled the case with clarity and compassion. So don't miss his report on Prime Time tonight.