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The close links between Sinn Féin and IRA untangled

Background: The memory of the party’s terrorist past has waned at precisely the same time that dissatisfaction with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has grown

When the van arrived at the prison gates in Co Roscommon it was carrying three men. One was a Sinn Féin TD at the time, Martin Ferris.

They pulled up at about 6.30am and within half an hour the IRA's convicted garda killers Pearse McAuley and Kevin Walsh came out of Castlerea Prison.

They were being freed from jail that morning after 10½ years for the gun killing of Det Garda Jerry McCabe during a botched armed robbery in Adare, Co Limerick.

When McAuley and Walsh emerged to freedom they were driven away in the van. Some media decided to follow them.


The van was driven from the prison in the direction of Dublin for about 3km before turning left on to a minor road. It soon came to a sudden stop under a very tight railway bridge, blocking the road in both directions.

McAuley and Walsh jumped out and ran to a car that had been parked on the far side of the bridge. They changed vehicles rapidly and were whisked away at speed.

All the while the white Transit didn’t budge; parked in the centre of the road under the small bridge ensuring none of the pursuing cars could follow McAuley and Walsh.

Ferris’s presence that morning in August, 2009, was significant.

This was a Sinn Féin TD collecting two IRA men who had killed a garda and wounded another in 1996. It was a message intended by Sinn Féin to demonstrate clearly it hadn’t forgotten about, and wasn’t turning away from, the IRA.

The IRA and Sinn Féin remained so closely linked that one of the party’s TDs was dispatched to collect two IRA killers from prison.

The fact Ferris had been chosen as the man to collect McAuley and Walsh was perfect for the messaging required on the day. He was both a Sinn Féin TD and an IRA man, having served a lengthy time in jail himself for gun running and he was named in the Dáil as a member of the IRA’s army council, which he denied.

That relationship between Sinn Féin and the IRA is something that had undoubtedly discouraged some people in the Republic from voting for Sinn Féin, despite the peace process.

But with the IRA’s campaign of terrorism having ended more than 20 years ago now, the result of the general election suggests 25 per cent of the electorate sees Sinn Féin as not just acceptable, but attractive.

Paul Quinn

The memory of the party's terrorist past has waned at precisely the same time that dissatisfaction with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has grown.

However, Sinn Féin found itself dragged back into the bad old days during the election campaign when controversy engulfed the party over the 2007 murder of south Armagh man Paul Quinn (21). Security forces believe he was beaten to death by a group of south Armagh IRA men, though it was not sanctioned by the leadership of the provisional movement.

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy MLA, the finance minister in the North, remains under pressure from the Quinn family to state clearly on television their son was not a criminal. He had stated on TV less than a month after Quinn’s murder that the young man “was involved in smuggling and criminality and I think everyone accepts that”. Ahead of the recent general election Mr Murphy “unreservedly” withdrew and apologised for his 2007 remarks but Breege Quinn, the mother of Paul Quinn, said he did not go far enough.

Sinn Féin has long dismissed efforts by its rivals to raise the IRA’s terrorist campaign or more recent events like Paul Quinn’s murder as something that makes the party an unsavoury, or even dangerous, choice for voters in the Republic.

Some of the current crop of Sinn Féin politicians were still in school and others weren’t old enough to enter a classroom when the IRA’s terrorism ended. But the past is not ancient history.

Dessie Ellis TD, who topped the poll for Sinn Féin in the Dublin North-West constituency, is a convicted IRA bomb maker.

Martin Ferris, whose time as a Sinn Féin TD has just come to an end, was also a convicted IRA terrorist. Gerry Adams has also just concluded his time in the Dáil as a Sinn Féin TD and was widely regarded as a crucial figure at the top of the IRA, though he denied it. The aforementioned Conor Murphy MLA also has convictions for IRA membership and possessing explosives.

A report in 2015 on the status of terrorist groups in Ireland, commissioned by the British government and drawn up by the PSNI and MI5, featured a section on the IRA. The PSNI has told The Irish Times its appraisal of the IRA in the 2015 report remains the same today.

"The assessment commissioned in 2015 by the then Secretary of State on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland has not changed," the PSNI said in reply to queries.

The PSNI’s assessment then as now is that the IRA’s structures continues to exist, albeit in a much reduced form and is committed to peaceful means and the political process rather than terrorism.

The IRA still had “a senior leadership, the ‘Provisional Army Council’ (PAC), and some ‘departments’ with specific responsibilities,” the report said. It also found the IRA still had access to some guns, despite having decommissioned, but was not trying to procure any new ones.

The most damning section of the report for Sinn Féin sets out the management position the Provisional Army Council still has over the party’s strategy, citing IRA members as sources.

“PIRA members believe that the [Provisional Army Council] PAC oversees both PIRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy,” the report says. “We judge this strategy has a wholly political focus. PIRA members have been directed to actively support Sinn Féin within the community including activity like electioneering and leafleting.

“Some PIRA members are involved in gathering information of interest to the group including details of DR [dissident republican] activities and the attempted identification of covert human intelligence sources [informers].

The allegation, of unelected men effectively being the invisible power behind Sinn Féin in office, is likely to continue to dog the party.

“A small number are involved in the storage of remaining weaponry in order to prevent its loss to DRs. Individual PIRA members remain involved in criminal activity, such as large-scale smuggling, and there have been isolated incidents of violence, including murders.”

The appraisal raises the question about whether Sinn Féin in government in the Republic would consult with, and take direction from, the Provisional Army Council.

Cash for ash

During the so-called cash for ash scandal in Northern Ireland, email correspondence within Sinn Féin as recently as 2017 showed the party’s then finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir seeking consent for decisions from senior Republicans, including those who have been senior IRA members.

Ó Muilleoir consulted Pádraic Wilson and Martin Lynch as he was considering signing off on a business plan to reduce subsidies in the renewable heating scheme, reducing its cost to the public.

Lynch was jailed for 10 years in 1982 for having a Soviet-made rocket launcher, rocket propelled grenades and firearms and was described in the Northern Assembly in 2001 as the then adjutant general of the IRA.

Wilson is a former leader of IRA prisoners at the Maze Prison where he served eight years on explosives charges. He was charged with IRA membership as recently as 2012, though never convicted. That charge related to his alleged role in so-called IRA kangaroo courts in 2002 into allegations made by two men who said they were sexually assaulted by an alleged member of the IRA.

The allegation, of unelected men effectively being the invisible power behind Sinn Féin in office, is likely to continue to dog the party.

Ó Muilleoir had also asked senior republican Ted Howell if he was "content" with the plan to reduce subsidies in the renewable heating scheme. Howell acted as a link contact between IRA leadership and prominent Irish Americans during the peace process in the early years.

The Garda does not publish assessments about Sinn Féin’s relationship with the IRA and the current state of the IRA in the way that the PSNI and MI5 has done.

However, some Garda sources have told The Irish Times they agree with the PSNI view that one army council leadership effectively presides over Sinn Féin and the IRA. And Garda sources were clear that the control by the army council was the same over Sinn Féin and the IRA in the Republic as it was in the north. Some gardaí were concerned at the lack of support by Sinn Féin in the Republic for the Special Criminal Court and the continued uneasy relationship between Sinn Féin in the North and the PSNI.

Another Garda source was concerned about the treatment of Máiría Cahill and others who were allegedly sexually abused within the Republican movement. In such cases the allegations were investigated by IRA kangaroo courts.

Garda sources believe a large group within the Republican movement still fall back on the power they derived from their IRA membership and use that power to control the communities they were from in the North.

Some gardaí who spoke to The Irish Times said many members of the force under the age of 40 knew very little about the IRA, had no lived experience of the Troubles, did not associate the current Sinn Féin leadership with the IRA and would not regard anyone from the party as a security risk.

One source very experienced in policing in the Border and investigating terrorism said Sinn Féin could not be given the justice portfolio if it got into government because some IRA members were still wanted for prosecution and were on the run.

“The minister for justice has authority over the guards and a very clear conflict of interest could arise,” he said.

‘A quasi-military force’

Another noted that Garda Commissioner Drew Harris's father, RUC superintendent Alwyn Harris, had been murdered by the IRA in 1989.

Lt Col Michael C Murphy, a now retired former deputy director of military intelligence in the Defence Forces, said it was no surprise to him that PSNI and Garda officers still believed the Provisional Army Council set strategy for the IRA and Sinn Féin on both sides of the Border.

He said the goal of the Republican movement, headed by the Provisional Army Council, had always been a 32-county socialist Republic. That goal, he said, was still being pursued as rigorously as ever.

However, the Provisional Army Council had now decided to further its cause through the ballot box in the Republic and the North using its political party, Sinn Féin, rather than using terrorism, he said.

“They consider themselves the legitimate Government of Ireland and the IRA as the legitimate armed forces on the island of Ireland and everything else is an imposter,” he said of the Provisional Army Council.

He added the council’s continued existence, its thinking and the goal it was working towards subverted the Republic as a state.

“I honestly don’t think most of the people involved in politics realise what they are dealing with and I don’t think the media understands either. This is a quasi military force.”

Lt Col Murphy was concerned but not surprised at David Cullinane, Sinn Féin TD in Waterford, shouting "Up the Ra" after his recent election and his election agent Michael Doyle saying Sinn Féin's success in the general election had "broken the Free State".

However, he said Doyle’s language – particularly referring to the Republic as “the Free State” that had been “broken” by the surge in the Sinn Féin vote – was a real insight into the Republican movement’s enduring outlook and motivation.

He added that Sinn Féin were also masters at dismissing as “nonsense” anyone who raised questions about the party being part of a wider movement and having its strategy set by an army council.

The Irish Times put it to Sinn Féin that the PSNI still believed the party and the IRA were both overseen in “an overarching strategy” by the Provisional Army Council.

It replied in a brief statement that it would “not be lost on people that this nonsense is again being repeated”.