Taoiseach Enda Kenny should be saying ‘thank you’ prayers these days for Kevin McGuigan, Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison and the other IRA killers and lethal Northern leopards who cannot change their spots. Just as he is beginning his election campaign around the theme of ‘stability or chaos’ (i.e. urging voters to put the Fine Gael-Labour coalition back in to continue the economic recovery or take their chances with the political party of the IRA and a bunch of Trotskyists and independents), events in Belfast conspire to underline his message in bright blood-red ink.¹
That perceptive Irish Times columnist Noel Whelan called it right after the publication last week of the British government-appointed panel’s report on the continuing structure, role and purpose of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland (set up in the aftermath of McGuigan’s killing). That report suggested that the IRA army council remains central to setting the strategy for the Republican movement – albeit this strategy is entirely geared to peace these days and the council does not necessarily tell Sinn Fein what to do. Whelan’s assessment was that the IRA’s continuing influence over Sinn Fein was probably achieved by “an overlap between the army council and some at the highest level of Sinn Fein…Many have long spoken of a sense that there is a controlling West Belfast clique that exerts considerable influence on Sinn Fein’s strategy even in the Southern political market place.”
His colleague Stephen Collins added that “over the past couple of years members of the army council have been observed in the precincts of Leinster House, notably at times when Sinn Fein was under pressure to deal with the fall-out from republican abuse claims” (e.g. Mairia Cahill’s allegations last year).
This has clear historical echoes, of course. Gerry Adams likes to compare the Provisional IRA to the old IRA of the War of Independence, and himself to Eamon De Valera. One major difference – and there are many others – was De Valera’s reluctance to have anything to do with an oathbound, anti-democratic secret organisation like the Irish Republican Brotherhood.
All this should give Southern voters food for thought before next spring’s election. Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin, who has always courageously set his face against any future coalition between his weakened party and Sinn Fein, put it well when he told the Dail: “The fundamental question for our republic that we must answer, and which this report does not ask, is the threat to democracy from an organisation that is involved with politics but which retains a military structure, with an active intelligence-gathering department and access to weaponry.”
Meanwhile in the North the indications are that the DUP and Sinn Fein are desperate to get back into government with each other. Nothing else could explain Peter Robinson’s surprising eagerness to accentuate the positives in the panel’s report, emphasising the importance of the current talks to save Stormont. We have come a very long way from Robinson’s 2007 comment that he didn’t see power-sharing with Sinn Fein as “a lasting and enduring form of government” to his words to RTE’s Tommie Gorman last week (in response to a question about whether power-sharing had a future) that he “didn’t think there’s any other future for Northern Ireland than our community working together to try to resolve outstanding issues.”
Even if the hurdles of continuing paramilitary structures (and let’s not forget the continuing violence and gangsterism of elements of the UVF and UDA) and welfare cuts can be overcome in resumed inter-party talks, there is a huge backlog of issues yet to be tackled by a NI Executive that has all but ceased to function as a decision making regional government in recent years. Look at the promised things that have not been done by the Executive since it took office in 2007: implementation of a strategy to deal with the North’s endemic curse of sectarianism; a strategy to deal with the past; implementation of an economic strategy; tackling the social housing crisis; progress on contentious parades; a Bill of Rights; a Single Equality Bill: an Irish Language Bill; a renewed Civic Forum – the list is a long one.
The distinguished Belfast journalist David McKittrick was writing last month about the disillusion of many ordinary people in Northern Ireland with Stormont’s politicians. He cited quotes from people in a recent opinion poll that they were a “waste of time”, “a bunch of clowns”, “useless at running a government”, “unproductive but grossly overpaid”, “dysfunctional”, “unfit for purpose”. However he also noted that the same poll suggested that, although many are deeply irritated by the Assembly, more than two-thirds of nationalists, and about half of unionists, still regard it as valuable.²
Maybe a new independent monitoring commission to oversee another attempt at winding down the paramilitaries (I personally believe the loyalist paramilitaries continue to pose a greater threat to the Northern peace process than what’s left of the IRA), plus an extra slice of ‘laundered’ British exchequer money to take the edge off the welfare cuts, might square the circle and get the ancient enemies back into government together again. Even those of us who have spent a large part of our lives working in, reporting on and occasionally trying to make a bit of peace in Northern Ireland get weary with the endless sectarian shenanigans of the North’s politicians. But what’s the alternative? An eventual slide back into mayhem.
P.S. Dubliners with a concern for the North might be interested in a series of lunchtime public talks at Liberty Hall (1-2 pm) in November and December at which people from the Belfast’s working class loyalist communities – voices rarely if ever heard on a Southern platform – will speak. The series – ‘Our Friends from Belfast’ – will be opened by the leader of the small left-of-centre Progressive Unionist Party (and former UVF prisoner), Billy Hutchinson, on Thursday 19 November. He will be followed by the East Belfast Irish language activist, Linda Ervine, on 26 November: the author and historian of the First World War, Philip Orr, on 3 December; gay rights activist and PUP Belfast City councillor, Julie Anne Corr, on 10 December; and the East Belfast playwright Robert Niblock on 17 December.
- For more see Jim McDowell, ‘Kevin McGuigan: An IRA enforcer who lived and died by the gun. But did his old friends pull the trigger?’ Belfast Telegraph, 14 August 2015
- ‘Stormont survival depends on goodwill of both sides’, Irish Times, 15 September 2015