British and Irish governments should focus on IRA’s €400 million global assets
Sinn Féin people should stop saying the IRA has gone away when self-evidently it hasn’t
In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Sinn Féin’s Falls Road office was paint-bombed and graffiti scrawled on the century-old facade of the the Carnegie library alongside: “IRA Sinn fien triarder’s!”, an illiterate attempt at “Sinn Féin traitors”. That prompted Sinn Féin MLA Phil Flanagan to tweet that the graffiti writers should spend more time inside the library.
Laughable it may be, but nevertheless this sort of assault on the buildings in many ways exemplifies the problem Sinn Féin faces in the North and in Belfast and Derry particularly. In the past few days, both Michael McDowell and Bertie Ahern have explained in this paper that they did not demand the disbandment of the IRA 10 years ago because of their concern that others would occupy the vacant space, set up an army council and claim the mantle of the armed struggle. Instead, the IRA would be allowed to wither on the vine.
To catalogue this process, the Independent Monitoring Commission was established in 2004. In publicly broadcast instructions in July 2005, IRA members were told, not to disband, but to stand down and engage in “exclusively peaceful and democratic programmes and in no other activities whatsoever”. That September the IRA decommissioned its arsenal.
By November 2006, the British security minister could tell MPs that the IRA had “disbanded its military structure, including its GHQ departments responsible for procurement, engineering and training, stood down its volunteers and stopped allowances. It is now firmly set on a political strategy eschewing terrorism and other forms of crime.”
The monitoring commission was able to conclude in its final report in 2011 that the IRA has “gone out of business as a paramilitary group”. However, the commission did point out that “members and former members of all paramilitary groups remain very active in non-terrorist types of crime, a bequest from the Troubles which will dog Northern Ireland for years”. And so it has proved.
Most IRA members obeyed the 2005 injunction. Today they canvas in elections, deliver leaflets, work in Sinn Féin constituency offices or at Stormont. They manage the local offices of Coiste na nIarchimí, the ex-IRA prisoners organisation. Some give guided tours of Belfast trouble spots. Others stand for election and get elected to councils and Stormont.
Not all IRA members acquiesced, however. Some walked away in disgust or dismay. A few joined dissident groups and, as the IRA withered as a military organisation and embedded itself in the political process, became more embittered and hostile to their former leaders. Their boldness grew in inverse proportion to the IRA’s weakness. In recent years they have targeted Sinn Féin leaders as well as a cadre of dominant IRA figures past and present who retain clout in republican districts.
Some of them are also important figures in Sinn Féin. For example, Bobby Storey, the formidable ex-director of IRA Intelligence and member of GHQ staff, became chair of northern Sinn Féin.
All these men toe the party line. As the PSNI chief constable said recently, they are all “promoting a peaceful political republican agenda”. There is an informal hierarchy among them, with the top man in Belfast a former member of the army council.
They are all in their late 40s or 50s. They could rely on a network of ageing IRA personnel in their neighbourhoods to enforce their strictures against obstreperous youths and criminals such as drug dealers. However, as they grew older they began to look like toothless lions past their prime. Young cubs have publicly defied them. Dissidents have attacked their homes and targeted individuals. Martin McGuinness’s Derry home has been attacked three times and his official car damaged.
In May this year, one malcontent crossed a line and killed one of these “senior republicans”, Jock Davison, former OC Belfast and member of Northern Command. Top IRA figures in Belfast concluded that the culprit was Kevin McGuigan, who was alleged to have targeted another leading IRA man this year. Someone took the decision to put down a marker to prove superannuated IRA leaders are not toothless lions.
It took two months to finalise the operation to kill McGuigan. The squad of IRA men probably “privatised” the actual murder using younger men and the cover name Action Against Drugs.
IRA men were responsible, but it was not an authorised IRA operation, according to the police. It was done without the approval of Sinn Féin and regardless of the far-reaching political consequences that would have been obvious to prominent IRA figures in Belfast.
Disowning the killing
The Irish and British governments will meet on Tuesday to try to repair the damage. A good start would be to find a way to stop Sinn Féin people from saying the IRA has gone away when self-evidently it hasn’t. Its military structures no longer exist, but there is an organisation. There has to be to manage its vast wealth.
In 2005, the Department of Justice estimated the IRA’s global assets at €400 million. Since then it has been privatised, with individual IRA members holding property portfolios and businesses in Ireland, Britain, Europe and the US in trust. Who controls it all? How?
For some reason, both governments and unionists seem obsessed that individual IRA men killing a former IRA man is a terminal threat to political stability in the North, yet ignore the implications of the IRA’s clandestine financial empire.
Ten years ago, Michael McDowell also said that demanding the IRA disband was pointless without demanding its war chest be emptied. Apparently that was a needless complication.
Brian Feeney is an Irish News columnist and author of Sinn Féin: A Hundred Turbulent Years and Insider: Life in the IRA, both for O’Brien Press. His latest book, Seán MacDiarmada, is part of the O’Brien Press 16 Lives series.