The devolved institutions in Northern Ireland are supposedly ‘teetering on the brink’ of collapse yet again.
After repeated failures to agree a balanced budget or implement welfare reform created months of uncertainty, the Executive’s future is now in doubt because the PSNI believes members of the IRA were involved in murdering a republican hit man. Despite its apparent seriousness, this particular predicament is unlikely to bring the shaky edifice at Stormont crashing down.
The IRA was supposed to have disbanded its military ‘structures’ and decommissioned its entire arsenal of weapons back in 2005. It was on the basis of this understanding that power-sharing resumed in 2007 and the DUP entered government with Sinn Féin.
From the outset it was a fairly flimsy pretext.
Less than a year after John de Chastelain, the retired Canadian general, oversaw decommissioning, the Independent Monitoring Commission reported that the IRA retained a substantial haul of arms. Punishment shootings in republican areas continued, Troubles-era weaponry found its way into the hands of ‘dissident’ paramilitary groups, and senior police officers, on both sides of the Irish border, acknowledged that the Provisionals were capable of launching attacks whenever they pleased. Huge smuggling operations, involving laundered fuel and counterfeit cigarettes and alcohol, persisted in heartlands like south Armagh, allowing IRA godfathers to amass fortunes.
On either side of Northern Ireland’s divided society, former terrorists made a seamless transition into ‘community’ organisations, often drawing salaries courtesy of the state. The unspoken truth is that their authority derives from a capacity for violence. It’s almost irrelevant whether Northern Ireland’s infamous litany of terror groups still exists in precisely the same form. Working class areas of Belfast, Londonderry and other towns remain under the influence of the same people, the tools of whose trade were guns and bombs.
The latest controversy concerns the murder this month of Kevin McGuigan, an ex-IRA member who was widely believed to have been responsible for killing Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison, the Provisionals’ commander in the Short Strand area of Belfast. The Police Service of Northern Ireland alleges that IRA members helped murder McGuigan, in league with an organisation called Action Against Drugs.
The PSNI has issued a rather confusing sequence of statements, confirming the continued existence of the IRA and its members’ ongoing involvement in crime, while simultaneously claiming that the Provisionals, “promote a peaceful, political republican agenda”. Action Against Drugs, the police say, is a criminal organisation without links to the Provos. Yet they also claim that the IRA ‘co-operated’ with AAD, to murder Kevin McGuigan.
It’s a lesson in the type of ‘constructive ambiguity’ upon which the political process in Northern Ireland has always been built.
Enough doubt about the provenance of the plot to murder McGuigan has been raised to allow Sinn Féin to deny that the IRA was involved. In fact republican politicians are rushing to assert that the organisation no longer exists in any meaningful form. The contrast to Gerry Adams’ famous threat, “they haven’t gone away you know”, has been rehearsed ad nauseum.
From the unionist perspective, the main political parties greeted allegations of IRA involvement with ill-disguised glee. There is a predictable cast of politicians relishing republicans’ discomfort, irrespective of any serious consequences for Northern Ireland.
The DUP has been talking up the notion of Sinn Féin being excluded from the Executive, but any ‘exclusion motion’ would require cross community support in the Assembly, which is unlikely to materialise in the current circumstances. The Secretary of State could table such a motion, or act to end power-sharing on the basis that the IRA breached its ceasefire, but Theresa Villiers will take advice from the PSNI Chief Constable, who has already distanced his force from suggestions that the
Provisionals are still involved in paramilitarism.
The Executive will only collapse if unionist ministers refuse to work with Sinn Féin and that requires an appetite to step away from Stormont, with its salaries, expenses and the sense of self-importance that accompanies the office of MLA. It will only happen if the parties feel there is a serious risk they will lose voters’ support by continuing to share power with republicans.
The McGuigan murder might not cause Stormont to fall, but it does expose the disfiguring influence that paramilitaries still have in Northern Ireland. Rather than political violence, the focus may now be on organised crime and third sector salaries, but whole working class communities, particularly in Belfast, remain firmly in the grip of former terrorists. It’s an ongoing problem for our society, which politicians have chosen for the most part to ignore.