Exercise in expediency to get Sinn Fein off the hook

Provisional IRA leaders are old masters at wording statements carefully and yesterday's offering was no exception.

Provisional IRA leaders are old masters at wording statements carefully and yesterday's offering was no exception.

But for an organisation which so often demands clarification from others, it offered only vagueness and ambiguity. Of Mr Charles Bennett, who was found blindfolded and shot in the head in west Belfast last week, the IRA said: "There have been no breaches of the IRA cessation, which remains intact."

It did not deny or admit involvement in the murder.

Mr Gerry Adams, who had earlier said the Bennetts deserved to know the truth, welcomed the statement. But it did not bring the family the truth. Officially, they are just as much in the dark as they were before it was issued.


However, a claim of responsibility would be only a formality. "Everybody knows it was the IRA", says Mr Ken Maginnis, the UUP MP. "Who else in west Belfast does that sort of thing?"

By not denying the murder of Mr Bennett but insisting that its ceasefire was not breached, the IRA is differentiating between shooting British soldiers and RUC officers and attacking members of its own community.

"The ceasefire relates to attacks against the British state, but the IRA retains the right to deal with matters in its own community", said a republican source. "That includes taking action against informers, carrying out `punishment' attacks, and `policing' dissidents if need be."

Of the attempted smuggling of arms from the US, the IRA said its own "preliminary investigation" showed that the army council had not sanctioned any importation of weapons.

One republican veteran said: "I think the word `preliminary' was deliberately used to give the leadership room for manoeuvre if contradictory evidence comes to light during the trials of the accused. What is the need for an `investigation' anyway? The army council will immediately know whether or not it sanctioned the operation."

Both security and republican sources said the attempted arms smuggling was far too complex and expensive an operation for freelance Provisional members.

"A few individuals acting independently would not have the money, organisation or range of contacts and addresses for that operation", said one reliable source. "This was clearly an operation carried out by an organisation, and it's just beyond the dissidents' finances."

The reaction to the IRA statement from grassroots Belfast republicans was mixed. One activist said it was necessary to be "frugal with the truth" in order to get Sinn Fein off the hook.

However, another said that the leadership should not be "disowning operations". He expressed fears that "ordinary volunteers" could be "hung out to dry". He made comparisons with similar actions which he said were carried out by the Official IRA leadership when it moved into politics in the early 1970s.

In a previous incident - precise details of which cannot be given for legal reasons - the Provisional IRA attempted to disown several men who were arrested while breaching the ceasefire on an authorised operation. They were charged with the offence. The Provisionals put pressure on the men's families not to say they were their members. Both the men and their families refused.

The IRA statement was issued in reaction to growing pressure on both governments to take action against Sinn Fein over the Bennett murder and the attempted arms smuggling. It is clearly a damage-limitation exercise.

The Provisionals reckon they have said enough to satisfy London and Dublin, and are clearly hoping that, when Senator George Mitchell's review of the Belfast Agreement begins in the autumn, the Florida gun-smuggling and the name of Charles Bennett will have been well forgotten.