Stephen Collins: IRA report is huge blow for Sinn Féin’s political ambitions

Micheál Martin’s response has put paid once and for all to talk of coalition


Politicians of all parties can no longer turn a blind eye to the role of the IRA army council in the politics of the Republic now that the issue is out in the open thanks to a British government report.

It has never been a secret that the army council is the body that oversees “both PIRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy”, in the words of the report, but it is something many politicians and commentators found it convenient to ignore.

Over the past couple of years, members of the army council have been observed in the precincts of Leinster House, notably at times when Sinn Féin was under pressure to deal with the fall-out from the republican abuse claims.

It should be pointed out that the firm assessment of the British government report is that the leadership of the IRA remains committed to the peace process and the aim of achieving a united Ireland by peaceful means and is not involved in targeting or conducting terrorist attacks against the state or its representatives.

Nonetheless, the overarching role of the army council so many years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement is something that must give everybody involved in politics pause for thought.

In the Dáil during the week Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin put his finger on the challenge posed by the official confirmation that IRA members look to the army council as the body that directs the actions of the republican movement.

‘Threat to democracy’

At the heart of the problem is the role of the army council in republican mythology. It has a fundamentally anti-democratic aspect even if it is currently committed to the peace process, rather than waging a terrorist campaign to achieve its objectives.

Former minister for justice Michael McDowell detailed in a recent Irish Times article how in 1938 the army council was formally handed the role of the “Government of the Irish Republic”, established in 1916, by a handful of irredentist opponents of the treaty who had been members of the second Dáil up to the ratification of the treaty in 1921.

These former TDs never recognised the legitimacy of the Irish State and instead claimed they were the legitimate government of the Irish Republic. In 1938 they decided to vest their governmental role and powers in the army council of the IRA. As McDowell pointed out, this is exactly what the membership and leadership of the Sinn Féin and the IRA believe to this day.

The republican movement has, admittedly, come a long way over the past 20 years, but as long as it retains its military structures and its psychological dependency on the myth that it is the real government of the Republic, it is difficult to see how any other self-respecting party in the Dáil can agree to share power with it.

Martin’s unequivocal response to the report provoked anger from Sinn Féin TDs, but the issue is something they will have to deal with if they want to achieve their ambition of being in power on both sides of the Border.

Of course, it is not easy for a party like Sinn Féin to disentangle itself from its past. It took the old Workers’ Party a long time to dispense with its “army” structure, but until Sinn Féin deals with the issue and becomes a fully democratic party it will have difficulty convincing other parties that it can be a partner in a coalition.

Martin’s firm response to the latest disclosures should put paid once and for all to speculation that there is a possibility of Fianna Fáil agreeing to a coalition with Sinn Féin if the numbers stack up after the forthcoming election.

Over the past year or so seven members of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party have suggested a coalition with Sinn Féin should not be ruled out, but the prospects of that happening have been scotched by the events of the past week.

Some of the smaller left-wing groups and Independents have said they would be prepared to support a government involving Sinn Féin, but it is hard to see the numbers stacking up for that arrangement in the next Dáil.

An important aspect of the report, which was touched on by Martin in his response, is the continuing violence, criminality and large-scale smuggling being conducted by individual members of the IRA.

Organised crime

“We must ask whether people are absolutely certain that any of the proceeds from the organised crime being committed by alleged individual Provo republicans is not finding its way to the political project,” Martin told the Dáil to howls of outrage from Sinn Féin.

It is not just Sinn Féin but the authorities on both sides of the Border which have questions to answer about continuing criminality on a massive scale. Earlier this year Senator Paul Coghlan led a group from the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on a fact-finding mission to south Armagh where they witnessed 12 diesel-laundering fronts operating openly.

Why this is apparently being tolerated by both governments is a mystery. There is also some mystery about how the Garda report into IRA activity, also published this week, found no evidence of the IRA army council’s existence in the Republic when its members are openly associating in public view.

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