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ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

A momentous step towards acceptance of the PSNI

(Ed Moloney, Ireland on Sunday)

As any public relations flack can testify, issuing bad news late on a Friday night is a tried and tested way to minimise the impact. If the IRA thought that by choosing last Friday evening to announce that it had expelled three of the IRA gang responsible for the brutal stabbing of Short Strand man, Robert McCartney would ensure limited coverage, then it was badly mistaken.

The IRA and Sinn Féin leadership were under pressure as rarely before to surrender the suspected cuprits to justice and to satisfy the demands of the dead man's family, his sisters in particular. The McCartney family were all Sinn Féin supporters and came from the Short Strand, the isolated Catholic enclave whose armed defence from Loyalist attack by the infant Provisional IRA in 1970 became a metaphor for the protective role the organisation claimed was the reason it had come into being.

Abandoning the McCartney's by refusing to give up at least some of the killers would have been tantamount to denying its own history and origins and deserting the people who had sustained the IRA and Sinn Féin for more than three decades. It would have been the beginning of the end for the Provisionals. Gerry Adams and his more astute colleagues finally realised that and acted.

It remains to be seen whether this action will satisfy everyone. At least six men, all IRA members, were involved in the knifing of Robert McCartney and his friend Brendan Devine but only half that number have been forced out of the IRA. Of particular significance will be the fate of the most senior of the IRA gang, a figure who is part of the organisation's national operational leadership. Was he included in the expulsion or was that confined to lower level members only?

The option of expelling the alleged killers was always open to the IRA leadership and there was a compelling precedent. In January 1989 an entire active service unit was stood down and disarmed by the IRA leadership after its members had shot dead a former RUC reservist, Harry Keys from Fermanagh who was visiting his girlfriend in Ballintra, Co Donegal.

The gunmen fired 23 bullets into his body and were heard whooping and cheering as they drove off. The killing caused outrage throughout Ireland and led to the expulsion of the unit. Having expelled members for killing a former policeman the IRA could hardly avoid doing the same to people who stood accused of butchering one of their own supporters.

The power to expel members in such circumstances is derived from the IRA's own General Army Orders, a set of rules and regulations which govern internal discipline. Order number 13 says that any IRA volunteer who brings the IRA into disrepute is liable to immediate expulsion and it is difficult to think of anything more likely to do that than knifing a man to death in a bar-room brawl and then using IRA resources to cover up the deed.

The immediate effect of the expulsions will be to release the witnesses, said to number over 70, from any fear of reprisals if they go to the PSNI to give statements. They can now do that in the knowledge that they will not be informing on IRA men but on ordinary civilians suspected of having played a part in murder.

The implicit message in all of this is one that is full of significance. The IRA leadership knows full well that the effect of its action will be to allow the PSNI to prosecute the case in court and that this process will do much to enhance the PSNI's credibility and acceptability in the Short Strand and other parts of Nationalist Belfast. Would the IRA have allowed this to happen if it intended to forever boycott and shun that force? This is a small but momentous step towards acceptance of the North's new policing arrangements.

The IRA action also settles another issue, that of growing speculation about a split between IRA hardliners and the Sinn Féin pragmatists on the Army Council. This is a decision that will benefit Sinn Féin, not least by removing any threat of electoral damage, but if there really was a split and the hardliners were in the ascendancy, as some observers have claimed, it never would have happened. Had they been in charge the IRA hardliners would have insisted on standing with their men and hunkering down for the storm. If anything the decision demonstrates that it is the Sinn Féin element of the IRA leadership which is calling the shots.

Having said that the IRA and its political spokesmen had to be dragged, almost kicking and screaming to this decision and had it not been for the persistence and courage of Robert McCartney's sisters it is likely this would never have happened.

This carries an important message about the way this IRA and Sinn Féin leadership behaves and it has lessons for the wider problems caused to the peace process by the Nortrhern Bank robbery. Without intense and unrelenting pressure that leadership will resist making any move at all in the hope that it if it sits long enough something will happen to improve fortunes. But if the pressure is applied strongly and resolutely enough that leadership will move.

As the Irish and British governments look forward to new peace talks and the hope that they can persuade the IRA to disband, decommission fully and abandon criminality it is a lesson they would be foolish to overlook.

February 27, 2005
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Ed Moloney is author of A Secret History of the IRA.

This article appears in the February 27, 2005 edition of the Ireland on Sunday.

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