Report refused to let Robinson off hook

Posted By: October 23, 2015

Newton Emerson.Irish News (Belfast). Thursday, October 22, 2015

There is a surprising amount to be learned from what looks like a statement of the obvious.

The report of the paramilitary assessment panel, published by secretary of state Theresa Villiers this week, was written by MI5 and the PSNI. The three members of the panel were merely an editorial committee, tasked with signing the report off as “fair and balanced”, “evidence-based” and “credible”.

The Northern Ireland Office had its own editorial stake in this venture. It commissioned the panel and Villiers had to present its findings to the Commons, where she would not have risked misleading the House.

The report was due for publication last week and no reason for its last-minute delay has been given. Sparing the blushes of the new Loyalist Communities Council is an obvious possibility, although perhaps only of secondary concern. Tweaking language to spare DUP blushes would have been a higher priority. The clunky reference to “IRA members believing” the army council runs Sinn Féin has the feel of a politician’s fix, while the DUP’s tortuous response took an implausibly brief time to issue.

Whatever the hold-up, it is unlikely to have been a paper jam in Hillsborough Castle’s laser printer.

Another detail worth noting is that MI5 takes the lead on republican intelligence and the PSNI takes the lead on loyalist intelligence.

So the short resulting document – four pages, excluding notes and appendices – is an exquisitely weighted insight into how the police, the intelligence services and the British government view the peace process. More specifically, by addressing a few uncomfortable truths they are showing confidence in the robustness of our politics, which is not to say any part of the report is untrue. It is just a careful selection of truths and the first insight they offer is that Peter Robinson is nearing the end of his usefulness.

At one level this is not much of a revelation, as the DUP leader is candid about nearing the end of his career. But the ruthless lack of consideration shown to unionism’s almost redundant headman remains instructive.

The authors went much further on Sinn Féin and the IRA than any observers were expecting. Robinson was essentially the customer for this report and the more it pulled its punches, the easier it would have been for him to slip back into Stormont. However, the more the report skirted around what the dogs on the street know, the more it would have damaged the credibility of its authors.

So what those authors said to Robinson with their Army Council verdict was, to paraphrase: “We’re not going to make ourselves, our offices and the process look daft, even for a moment, to help you wriggle off the stupid hook you hung yourself on by over-reacting to the UUP.”

This represents a confident assessment by the real powers-that-be that Robinson, the DUP and Unionism itself have nowhere else to go but back into Stormont, getting back on with it.

The report stands in striking contrast to the 2002 suspension of Stormont to spare David Trimble’s blushes over the  IRA, or even the assistance given to Robinson as recently as this February during the on-the-runs scandal. Time is clearly and suddenly running out on the first minister’s retirement carriage clock, although in fairness to Robinson he did exactly what he had to do as soon as he had to do it. This is what makes him a proper politician as opposed to a tribal elder.

The report’s implication for republicanism – that Sinn Féin and the IRA share a leadership and their leadership won’t admit it – is of course too trite for further comment.

While passing judgment on others, the authors have revealed a weakness of their own – and one that will not pass as naturally as a departing politician. Their assessment of loyalism is damning enough as presented, yet the report still pulls its punches by insisting the UVF and UDA have meaningful leadership structures, with a sincere and potentially effective commitment to ending criminality and violent control of communities. This is overstating facts on the ground, to put it mildly. The failure to mention the east Belfast UVF is a particularly glaring omission when a four-page report finds space for a digression on the errant south east Antrim UDA.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that, while the intelligence services think Stormont can now handle the truth about the IRA, the PSNI is still struggling to accept that most loyalists are beyond all hope of processing.