Today, for the first time in my life, there is (officially) no active Irish Republican Army. All political rhetoric aside, this really is a momentous day.
I passionately believe in a United Ireland, but I am completely repulsed by the actions of the IRA (among other groups, of course) throughout the conflict, and the constant condonement and justification of these actions by their colleagues in Sinn Fein (yes, I do consider Sinn Fein and the IRA to be inextricably linked, more on that below). To get to a stage where the IRA is willing to lay down their arms, and put violent conflict behind them, is fantastic.
This is a unique announcement, and has gone further than anything said before. But, like most things in life, we need to be careful how much faith we put in this.
I’d like to preface the following comments with this important note: when I talk about Sinn Fein, I’m referring to the general party and not any individuals (unless named), most particularly not any local members. I have many friends who are Sinn Fein members, and work very closely with Sinn Fein representatives as a member of Letterkenny Town Council. I do not mean this as a personal attack on anyone, however I do not support much of the Sinn Fein (and IRA) ideology, much as Sinn Fein members may not support Fianna Fail policy.
Firstly, the main issue outstanding, if we take everything at face value, is the continued disengagement of the provisional movement from the Police Boards in Northern Ireland. This announcement opens the way for Sinn Fein representatives to start taking their places on the Police Boards across Northern Ireland, but I am not sure whether that will happen in the foreseeable future. The IRA sees itself as the defender of the community, and has historically not been willing to hand that power over to any other organisation.
Another issue is criminality. Many people have expressed concern that there was no mention of an end to criminality in the statement. This was never going to happen. While the statement does clearly mention an end to “all activity”, the main thing to remember is that Sinn Fein official policy is that any act sanctioned by the IRA Army Council cannot be a criminal act, as the Army Council is the only legitimate authority (and Government) on the island of Ireland. This is exactly what was said by Mitchell McLaughlin, Sinn Fein Chairman on RTE’s Questions and Answers back in January 2005 (when he also said that the brutal abduction, murder and disposal of the body of Jean McConville in 1972 was not a crime) and referenced by Gerry Adams in his speech to the 2005 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis. I do not know who organised and undertook the Northern Bank robbery in Belfast, but the IRA has admitted responsibility for the brutal murder of Garda Jerry McCabe while attempting to rob a delivery of money to a Post Office. These activities are completely, undeniably criminal and totally inexcusable. If Sinn Fein seek an “Ireland of Equals”, that should first mean that all citizens must fall under the same rule of law.
Criminality will be the “make or break” issue over the next year or two for the Peace Process. Sinn Fein and the IRA have a terrible record on this issue. One side carries out the attacks, robberies, racketeering and so on, while the other either denies or justifies them.
As I mentioned above, I do consider Sinn Fein and the IRA to be two sides of the same coin. Are all Sinn Fein politicians (or supporters) members or former members of the IRA? Definitely not. Where Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness members of the IRA Army Council until recent weeks? I have no idea. But, like the most Irish people, I believe the organisations are linked.
I do believe Gerry Adams was a member of the IRA. It is completely illogical to think he went from being imprisoned with IRA prisoners in the Long Kesh prison, to president of Sinn Fein, without having been involved with the IRA. The (UK) Times this week published a photo of a young Gerry Adams in IRA attire, as part of an IRA Guard of Honour at the (IRA) military-style funeral of an IRA member. His status as “Brownie”, the An Phoblacht columnist who first promoted the “ballot box in one hand, armalite in the other” strategy is well documented.
Martin McGuinness has openly admitted holding senior roles in the IRA, as have Martin Ferris (TD) and many more. The official Sinn Fein website, which has recently removed some of the more contentious items such as the “Sniper at Work” t-shirts, still sells items with slogans such as “IRA- Undefeated Army” and “You Can Never Kill the Revolution”, featuring a man in military uniform holding a large automatic rifle.
The IRA statement talks about the move to democracy and political means of continuing the struggle. If Sinn Fein and the IRA were not linked, this would require the creation of a new political party to carry on where the armed struggle has left of. This, of course, will not happen.
What does all this mean? Sinn Fein, as a political organisation, continually undermines its own credibility by (for example) denying Gerry Adams’ membership of the IRA and by justifying the acts of the IRA. The IRA has consistently lied in previous statements (they denied, and then were shown to be behind a number of heinous acts throughout the years, including the murders of Garda Jerry McCabe, 14 year old Kathleen Feeney and Jean McConville) and by its very nature as a terrorist organisation is difficult to trust.
I am hopeful that the IRA statement marks a new beginning for Ireland, North and South. We will have to wait to see whether that happens or not. God willing, this chance will not fade away.