As has so often happened in previous bouts of political horse-trading and jockeying for position when the political circus has come to town, the public is again seeing the spectre of the Provisional IRA drifting into public discourse, arguably more as an instrument of leverage than out of genuine concern. Like a damp mist befogging other substantive issues, the balaclava is once again being fiercely debated by the suits.
Garda boss Drew Harris, in response to a question about the current status of the Provisional IRA at a passing out ceremony for recruits in Templemore Garda College, echoed a 2015 PSNI finding. ‘I am also aware of the PSNI and the British security assessment and we do not differ from that view.’ Harris is not merely basing his opinion on a dated report but is giving a current assessment. Three months ago the PSNI position had not shifted when it told the News Letter that “with regards to PIRA, there has been no change since the Paramilitary Assessment in 2015."
This is a puzzling statement from Byrne. Of course it is for him to comment on, just as much as it is for him to comment on the existence of the UVF, UDA or New IRA. Is the public paying him through taxation not to tell it the business of the public? Byrne, more so than Harris, has a case to answer when it comes to intervening in shaping the outcome of a political process. His is the sin of omission. The Provisional IRA either exists or it does not. If it does exist Sinn Fein can hardly, without a large dose of irony, call on the PSNI to cover-up for it while attacking it for covering up for so much else. The logic there is that it is okay to cover up for the present but not the past.
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald has come out quickly to refute the Harris assertion: "the IRA has gone away and democracy is the order of the day and there’s no dispute around that.” Which overlooks the small fact of why there very much is such a dispute. McDonald also claims:
The war is over and the IRA is off the stage. The only threat now is so called dissident elements that actually threaten Sinn Féin because we support the police service.
Yet this information comes from the very same source that maintains the Provisional IRA still exists - the PSNI.
But even if the IRA had gone away how would McDonald actually know? If she believes Gerry Adams when he tells her he was never in the IRA, then she is not going to be taken seriously when she claims that the IRA has vacated the stage. If she is being frank about the extent of her knowledge it is clear that the Provisional IRA is an organisation she knows next to nothing about. At one level that can work in her favour but on another it denies her the authority to speak with authenticity on the existence or otherwise of the body.
Sinn Fein also has a problem in that it needs to explain why Gerry Kelly and Michelle O'Neill are recruiting agents for the PSNI when the force has been manufacturing smears about the party's links to a non-existent organisation. If the PSNI is fabricating porkies Kelly and O'Neill are knowingly recruiting in support of political policing.
While problems abound for Sinn Fein, it is not the only party with questions to answer. Last month Fine Gael devoted quite a bit of time and political energy to getting Sinn Fein into government in Belfast yet is doing everything possible to keep it out of government in Dublin. Fianna Fail enthusiastically backs that position. There is both something approaching contempt for the Northern electorate in that and condescension towards the Southern one. Children of a lesser god, the voters of the North must endure Sinn Fein while their Southern compatriots are to be spared the supposed indignity.
For years Dublin government ministers and officials knowingly negotiated with Provisional IRA army council members who, conveniently for all, wore Sinn Fein hats. They seriously cannot expect the public to believe that their own intelligence agencies were telling them that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were not on the PIRA's army council. On one occasion Bertie Ahern, while Taoiseach, laughably proclaimed that the IRA was so honest it could actually be believed when it denied involvement in subversive activity. That stance soon ended when the IRA exploited his "naivete" to rob the Northern Bank. Chastened, with egg on his face, Ahern not only accused the IRA of having staged the heist but asserted that Sinn Fein had prior knowledge of it.
Needless to say the IRA and Sinn Fein denied both.
As one former member of the Provisional Republican Movement put it online yesterday:
The existence of Gerry Adams' IRA in its current form was negotiated with the British government and the Irish government so that some control could be kept over republican communities ...
The "current form" is an inviting line of inquiry. If true that the Provisional IRA has not gone away, its ongoing existence is not just down to Sinn Fein.