Gerry Moriarty: Robinson gambles that Adams and McGuinness can finally make the IRA go away

First minister risks being outflanked by UUP

“It must be difficult for the DUP leader to hold the line.”.  Photo : Niall Carson/PA Wire

“It must be difficult for the DUP leader to hold the line.”. Photo : Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

One of the first out of the blocks after the report on the IRA and the other paramilitaries was published was Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister who reheated the line the world and its mother was using yesterday, “They never went away you know.”

And he followed it up directly with a very awkward question for Peter Robinson. “Will the DUP Keep the Army Council in NI government?”

To the great relief of Dublin and London the initial response is that Robinson appears prepared to hang in with the political process for a while longer to test whether Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness can really make the IRA go away. He’s even brought himself and his Ministers back into the Northern Executive after their boycott triggered by the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan.

But it must be difficult for the DUP leader to hold the line. The report from the three-person panel on the status of the IRA and other paramilitaries, based on information provided by the PSNI and MI5, will make hard reading for a lot of people, particularly for unionists, and most particularly for DUP supporters.

It could spook them. Robinson and his most trusted lieutenants could be hard pressed to prevent some of them from bolting.

If the PSNI chief constable George Harrison’s assessment that the IRA still exists and that some of its members were involved in the murder of Belfast republican Kevin McGuigan was bad then this report is infinitely worse.

Hamilton spoke of an IRA “hierarchy” while refraining from using the term “army council”. The panel of British Liberal Democrat peer Lord Carlile, former senior Northern Ireland civil servant Rosalie Flanagan and lawyer Stephen Shaw however baldly stated that the army council is still operating.

“The structures of PIRA remain in existence in a much reduced form. This includes a senior leadership, the Provisional Army Council, and some departments with specific responsibilities,” it added.

And what Jim Allister and others have and will seize upon is where the report’s authors said, “PIRA members believe that the Provisional Army Council oversees both the PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy.”

Those who believe this is an opportunity to bring down Robinson, damage the DUP and wreck the powersharing administration will intentionally miss the careful framing of this sentence - that it is IRA members rather than the panel who hold this view - but nonetheless inclusion of that line reinforces the notion of men and women in balaclavas running the political show.

The panel added that it judged that this assumed overarching “strategy has a wholly political focus”, but again that is a line that will be missed by unionists who want to miss it.

The panel’s report featured many negatives relating to the IRA and also to the other paramilitaries. The focus however will be on the IRA because of its relationship to Sinn Fein and how the panel’s findings will have a direct effect on whether the Executive and Assembly can survive.

The panel also found that the IRA still has weapons despite the statement of full decommissioning in 2005; that it has been involved in “isolated” violent incidents including murder; that it is involved in criminality and large-scale smuggling; and that it is “gathering information of interest” including on dissident and perceived informers.

It was rather surprising therefore that Robinson and the DUP Minister of Finance Arlene Foster, while acknowledging that the report made “depressing” and “disturbing” reading, also took comfort in the positives. Talking to the BBC for instance Ms Foster concentrated on the IRA having a “wholly political purpose”.

“There is no targeting, there is no training, no recruiting, there’s no arms procurement, there’s no planning and there’s no conducting of terrorist activity,” she said.

The important line from Robinson was that he wants the issue of the IRA and paramilitarism resolved in the talks warning that there were only a “couple of weeks to save Stormont”. Some will be surprised he is staying in the negotiations.

Robinson affected not to be taken aback at the idea of senior Sinn Fein leaders and the IRA army council being one and the same. “Does somebody think the people in the army council have different fingerprints than the people who are in the leadership of Sinn Fein? I don’t, never have,” he said.

Robinson is staking a lot on sticking with the talks. There is some speculation that he is expecting reciprocation from Sinn Fein. Martin McGuinness at least in the face of the panel’s stark assertions on the IRA was a little nuanced in his response.

He didn’t denounce or rubbish the report, rather insisting that the IRA had delivered on the “transition from conflict to peace” and that Sinn Fein was the only “organisation involved in the republican struggle and in republican activism”.

“We all have a responsibility to deal with these issues, to tackle criminality and bring paramilitarism to an end and Sinn Féin will play a full part in this important work,” he added.

It was slightly different than what Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt has described as Sinn Fein’s “single transferable speech of denial” about the IRA.

Nesbitt has also indicated that the UUP will remain in the talks to try to deal with the issue of paramilitarism, as well as the other very vexed matter of welfare reform. This gives Robinson some cover. But the reinstated First Minister will also know that Nesbitt could gain electorally from this debacle if the talks don’t deliver on truly getting the IRA off the stage, as could Jim Allister.

The big question therefore is whether Adams and McGuinness and P O’Neill, who is still around judging by the report, can respond in such a fashion as to make Robinson’s gamble of maintaining some faith in republicanism worthwhile. The coming weeks will provide the answer.

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