Puzzling report raises even more questions

Posted By: October 24, 2015

Patrick Murphy Saturday column. Irish News(Belfast). Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Real IRA is bad, but the real IRA is good. That appears to be a reasonable summary of republican organisations in the assessment of paramilitary activity presented to the British government.

The Irish government’s report was different. It just said ‘What IRA?’ The contents of the two reports and the significant differences between them suggest that both were largely political in intent.

Welcome to Ireland, the home of Euro-Disney politics, where paramilitarism is a bit like beauty – its existence depends on the eye of the political beholder.

The British report was notable for its language, content and omissions. The language was straight from Yes, Minister, indicating what Provisional IRA members apparently believe about the army council, but failing to reveal what the PSNI and MI5 believe. (To quote from Yes, Minister: “I don’t want the truth, I want something I can tell parliament.”)

The report contained many unexpected references. These include the army council’s continued operation, the Provisional IRA’s access to ‘weaponry’ (which is guarded ‘to prevent its loss’ to dissidents) and PIRA intelligence-gathering on dissident groups.

These points represent a new departure for the British government’s security assessment, but they raised more questions than they answered.

How many and what sort of weapons does the PIRA still hold? Why does the PSNI not seize them, as it seizes weapons from dissident groups? If the PIRA does not intend to use them, why not hand them in?

If some of these weapons were used in killings, does their retention pervert the course of justice, since they may hold forensic evidence? Were they used to kill people while Sinn Féin was in government? If so, why were we not told?

In raising and then ignoring these questions, was the report conditioning us to the concept of good terrorists (in government) and bad terrorists (outside government)? Is the British government peddling the notion that we should settle for what passes for peace and get on with it?

Oddly Sinn Féin’s response did not deny the IRA’s existence or its possession of weapons, arguing instead that it was carrying on the republican struggle. (No, you may not ask if that would be the struggle to become Stormont’s principal deputy speaker.)

The Garda assessment was little more than a cut-and-paste of media reports from recent years. It did not refer to Sinn Féin, but to ‘a particular political party’. It stated that only those who have left the Provisional IRA are involved in criminal activity – which was remarkably close to the claim by Gerry Adams the following day that those involved in crime are, by definition, not republican.

While the British claimed that the PIRA army council continues to function, the Irish claimed that it did not meet in the 26 counties.

Why would it only meet in the north?

It was an odd pre-election approach for a Fine Gael government to take. Its current electoral thrust is to attack Fianna Fáil, which in turn directs its energies against Sinn Féin. Is Fine Gael playing down the PIRA’s existence to allow Sinn Féin to eat into Fianna Fail’s votes?

Or is that much too clever for Fine Gael? Maybe they just took their ingredients from Britain and overcooked them.

In The North, the British played up the IRA’s existence. Their report was seen as putting pressure on Sinn Féin. But it applied much more pressure to the DUP, which now faces an exceptionally difficult election campaign. It may not be the largest party in Stormont for much longer.

So, apart from giving the DUP some immediate (but rather flimsy) political cover, what was the report’s long-term aim? Like most people, this column has no idea if the Provisional IRA exists.

However, the British government appears to be telling us that Stormont, including its police, is politically controlled (through petitions of concern) by an armed paramilitary organisation, which has committed murder in recent years.

But we are not to worry because, in defending Stormont, these people are well intentioned. (You may wonder how that differs from what the unionists did with the ‘B’ Specials for 50 years.)

By revealing Sinn Féin’s links to (good) paramilitarism, are the British engineering a weaker DUP to give SF a relatively stronger hand in Stormont, in the hope that their superior political skills will provide a new stability?

If so, those who marched against the old Stormont can only note with a wry smile how the hard men who scorned the civil rights campaign and went off to fight for a united Ireland, are now being hailed by Britain as Stormont’s saviours.

Walt Disney would be out of his depth in this country.