A watershed year for Sinn Fein

The world has turned a blind eye to Irish Republican Army violence as long as it stayed within Ireland. Now the game is up.

By Henry McDonald
Published March 7, 2005 3:07PM (EST)

This was meant to be the year of Sinn Fein's big push. Capitalizing on the party's centenary, Sinn Fein strategists planned Ireland-wide rallies, debates, culture nights and a concert later this year in Dublin. The aim was to raise the party's game in the Irish Republic, to start winning the hearts and minds of the southern middle classes and ultimately a place in government by 2007. Sinn Fein strategists labeled this as the "reconquest of the south." Instead this year has turned into Gerry Adams' "annus horribilis." The reason for Sinn Fein's setbacks can be summed up in three letters: IRA.

As Sinn Fein held its annual conference this past weekend, the party was under pressure as never before. Two killings -- one in Belfast, the other in Derry -- have been laid at the door of IRA members, who have been accused of acting like judge, jury and executioner in their communities. The deaths of Robert McCartney and James McGinley -- both slain, according to the murdered men's families, by IRA activists, although not on the orders of the organization -- have focused international attention on the inherent contradictions within the republican movement. Two more families have joined the McCartney sisters to demonstrate that they will not be intimidated. The party that preaches peace and justice while its military wing attacks its own voters now faces the prospect of a people's revolt in republican areas of Northern Ireland.

At the beginning of last December, No. 10 and the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs were frantically briefing the world's media that a historic deal was in the offing. London and Dublin spun a fiction that Ian Paisley -- firebrand born-again Christian defender of traditional unionism -- was about to do a deal with his mortal enemy Adams. Yet even as spin machines on both sides of the Irish Sea were working overtime it seems some of the most senior figures in the IRA were planning the biggest bank robbery in European history.

Three months later, the political process lies in ruins and Sinn Fein is making one P.R. gaffe after another. Since the bank heist there has been the savage murder of McCartney in a Belfast bar, the subsequent campaign by his sisters for truth and justice, and the Irish police chasing after the IRA's hidden millions in the Republic. In every instance it is the IRA's actions that have left Sinn Fein reeling. So why do Adams and McGuinness not only sit on the IRA's ruling body, the Army Council, but also defend its right to continue in existence?

Over the past decade the IRA has been a paradoxically useful tool for the Adams-McGuinness leadership and their strategy of nudging the republican movement away from physical force. Because there is huge overlap between Sinn Fein and IRA membership, the latter is used as an internal disciplinary force. Thus "volunteers" are handed down a party line at IRA meetings all over Ireland that ensures there is no serious debate or dissent at Sinn Fein annual conferences like the one held in Dublin this weekend.

So, for example, motions from radical branches in the Republic calling on the party to support abortion rights for women were expected to be voted down with a collective show of hands from delegates under IRA instruction.

In the wider republican community the IRA is used to quell external dissent, brutally "police" working-class Catholic areas of Northern Ireland and raise millions through robberies, rackets, smuggling, scams and other illegal activities. Since the IRA's violence was supposed to have ended in 1994 the organization has actually killed dozens of "transgressors," whether drug dealers, dissidents or simply men who got the better of Provo foot soldiers in fistfights.

The terror group imported hundreds of handguns from Florida in 1999 because it needed forensically clean weapons just in case it had to shoot enemies on the streets of Belfast or Dublin. No gun used in these killings could then be traced to old IRA weapons.

Both the John Major and the Tony Blair governments entered into a Faustian pact with the IRA. They signaled to the Provos that if they stopped bombing Britain and assassinating police officers and British solders they could do what they wanted in the areas under their control.

The Clinton administration also played its part in this policy. FBI officers investigating the Florida gun-running plot, for instance, received phone calls from the White House during their inquiry urging them not to state that the IRA smuggling operation had been in any way "sanctioned" by the organization's leadership. Even some human rights activists and progressives colluded in this arrangement. Like the governments in London and Dublin, they turned a blind eye to on-the-ground breaches of the cease-fire. Only now that the photogenic McCartney sisters are beginning to take on the IRA are these transgressions beginning to be more widely challenged.

In a sense this policy was the Anglo-Irish version of the "white man's burden": In this case, the troublesome Paddies would have to be allowed a criminal phase in its democratic evolution, as if there were never any democratic tradition rooted in Ireland. That policy has now rebounded both on the governments and on the political ambitions of Sinn Fein.

If the IRA is allowed to exist, then it cannot, to use its own words, remain quiescent. As long as it remains a player, the IRA has to remind its enemies that it can still shake things up. Last week I spoke to a senior IRA man who has served the movement for 30 years. He is convinced his former comrades robbed the Northern Bank in order to prevent something much more disastrous from taking place -- a bomb in Britain. The IRA leadership, under pressure from militants, chose the robbery as a message to the British rather than put at risk a decade of Sinn Fein achievements with a short bombing campaign.

Sinn Fein 100 years ago was a very different political beast. Arthur Griffith's Sinn Fein wanted a monarchy for Ireland and contained an eclectic band of oddball mystics, Gaelic revivalists and anti-Semites. Over the next 100 years the party split on five different occasions, three of which resulted in bloodshed. Ironically, those splits enhanced Irish democracy because they produced new political forces and forced old revolutionaries to become pragmatic politicians.

This will undoubtedly be a watershed year for Sinn Fein, but in a way that Adams could never have imagined. He and his comrades face a stark choice: Do they hold on to the IRA and remain out of government on either side of the border for the foreseeable future, or does the republican leadership finally dissolve its military wing? Taking the latter option will inevitably result in a split because there is nowhere else for most IRA members to go.

Following the Anglo Irish Treaty, Michael Collins had a new police force and army for the majority of his men to enter; this is one of the reasons his side won the Irish civil war. Gerry Adams, without a state and with the partition of Ireland still a reality, has no such options except to risk a fresh schism in republicanism. Given his record and his fear of fomenting divisions, the chances of the IRA standing down and handing the guns over are extremely slim.

Henry McDonald

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