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

Why ex-IRA men killing each other really does matter for all of Ireland

(Suzanne Breen, Irish Mail on Sunday)

The North has plunged into a political crisis, the Stormont institutions are on the brink of collapse, and unionist and nationalist politicians are bickering as though the peace process never happened.

It may be argued that the events leading to this chaos matter not a jot to people in the Republic. IRA men killed an ex-IRA man. Big deal. Get over it. Sure gangland killings are a regular occurrence on the streets of Dublin. They don't bring down the government.

This argument is shallow, flawed and deeply dangerous. Those who cherish democracy should reject it wholeheartedly. Excuses that the killing of Kevin McGuigan doesn't merit a punitive political response amount to saying that the state should collude in murder.

Imagine this scenario unfolding next year. Sinn Féin is part of a coalition government in Leinster House. A Sinn Féin TD is Tanaiste and three colleagues also hold ministerial portfolios.

A prominent party supporter is shot dead in Dublin. The gardai launch a murder investigation and vow to bring the killers to justice. But senior IRA figures, who double job as Sinn Féin members, aren't content with this.

They don't want to wait on police officers, prosecutions, courts and all that tedious business. They prefer their own, alternative 'criminal justice system'. They launch an investigation. They knock on doors, interview witnesses, and take statements. Then they meet, discuss the evidence, and decide that a father-of-nine is 'guilty' and should be shot dead.

Would Sinn Féin be allowed to remain in government in the Republic? Not a chance. Yet the above sequence of events is exactly what was played out in Belfast, culminating in the murder of Kevin McGuigan.

Those who the police believe ordered and implemented the murder of Kevin McGuigan are mainstream not mavericks.

What makes Kevin McGuigan's killing different from a gangland execution is that the gangland executioners don't have political buddies in government. Would it be acceptable for members of gangs slaughtering each other in the Republic to be umbilically linked to any party in Dáil Eireann?

Bobby Storey, for years the IRA's head of intelligence, is Sinn Féin's Northern chairman. Another powerful force in the party is Sean 'Spike' Murray who is currently being investigated by the PSNI for gun-running – an allegation, it should be pointed out, that Murray vehemently denies.

Florida stockbroker turned gun-runner Mike Logan bought around 200 handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition for the IRA post-ceasefire. He hid the weapons in children's toys and posted them to Ireland.

Logan says he was working directly for Spike Murray. The guns Logan sent have been used in at least three post-ceasefire murders. Murray is a regular presence at Sinn Féin offices in Stormont.

It can't be said that Storey and Murray are the exception not the rule in their prominence in the party in Belfast.

There are many good, decent people who have joined Sinn Féin who haven't a trace of blood on their hands. They are committed to an anti-austerity agenda. They are hard-working, principled activists and elected representatives that any party would be proud to have.

But there is no escaping the fact that Sinn Féin is still organically linked to the IRA, and an IRA that – when it feels significantly challenged – will still resort to deadly violence.

The Provos certainly have no desire to kill British soldiers and police officers or blow up town centres. They have genuinely given up on their efforts to force a British withdrawal and Irish unity through armed struggle.

But, if challenged from within their own community, they can and will strike back. Don't think it's only those with shady pasts who are under threat. Unlike Kevin McGuigan, Paul Quinn from Cullyhanna in south Armagh had never held a gun in his life. He was never in a paramilitary organisation.

He occasionally used his fists though. He punched the son of the local IRA commander following a road rage incident. He assaulted another IRA member who had insulted his sister in a taxi depot. That was enough to seal his fate.

He was killed not in a Northern republican stronghold but in a barn in Oram, Co Monaghan, in October 2007. A dozen men in black-military style clothing orchestrated a carefully choreographed plan where they lured him to the farm where they were waiting.

The beating they inflicted was brutally methodical. From his toes to his groin, they battered him with iron bars. They used nail-studded cudgels on his upper body. Paul's mother Breege remembers the heartbreaking sight confronting her in Our Lady of Lourdes hospital in Drogheda:

"Paul was lying in the bed with a ventilator protruding from his mouth, his eyes half-open. His head was swollen and there were gashes on his face. His right ear was torn off.

"Every major bone below his neck was broken. The doctors said nothing could be fixed. I couldn't even join his hands to place a pair of Rosary beads in them." Paul was just 21-years-old when he died.

His family don't suggest his murder was sanctioned by Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness. But to this day when Sinn Féin leaders visit south Armagh, they rub shoulders with those who ordered Paul's murder.

Fianna Fáil entered the Dáil in 1927, in the words of Sean Lemass, as a "slightly constitutional party". But that altered relatively quickly. Twenty one years after the first IRA ceasefire, 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement, and a decade after the Provisionals' declaration that they were going away, they still haven't discarded the gun.

It is wrong to say that the murder of Kevin McGuigan is being used in the North solely for some sectarian agenda by those who 'don't want a Fenian about the place'. The DUP's initial reaction to the killing, and to the PSNI's assertion of IRA involvement, was markedly mild.

It called for cool heads and clarification. It sought meetings with British Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, and Prime Minister David Cameron. The power, prestige, and pounds that flow from Stormont have long mattered more to the DUP than its ideological opposition to Sinn Féin.

It is only since Ulster Unionist leader, Mike Nesbitt – a former TV presenter turned politician who has never been a member of the Orange Order – decided that this time a blind eye couldn't be turned to murder and his party should leave the Executive, that the DUP's stance has hardened.

What's most telling though is that as the North's administration teeters on the edge of the cliff, most people – regardless of religious or political allegiance – couldn't care less. Vox pops, by both the BBC and UTV, convey that utter indifference.

There will be no popular mass rallies to save Stormont. It didn't deliver anything concrete for the vast majority of the population. Despite all the promises, the peace dividend of investment and jobs never materialised. The North still heads the most deprived league tables in the UK.

The Assembly and the Executive facing collapse is a crisis for the political class, not for the people.

Sinn Féin is not just a greener, more radical version of other parties on this island. It's rivals don't have military wings which still, if a certain set of circumstances arise, settle scores down the barrel of a gun.

Despite Sinn Féin's growth in the South, the North remains the party's beating heart. And here, the real face of Sinn Féin is very different to Mary Lou McDonald's.

September 1, 2015

This article appeared in the August 30, 2015 edition of the Irish Mail on Sunday.

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