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Divorce preferable to disbandment for Sinn Féin

(by Ed Moloney, Irish Times)

IRA disbandment may well have been the Zeitgeist of the recent St Patrick's Day celebrations in Washington but once again it is the dog that didn't bark that may tell the real story of this phase of the peace process. Although discomfited by calls for the IRA to wind up from Senator Ted Kennedy and his erstwhile loyal ally, Congressman Peter King, the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams could nonetheless take solace from the impressive list of those who kept their mouths shut on the issue.

Most notable for his silence was President Bush himself. Even though sections of the media had been briefed, it seems, to expect a pronouncement along the Kennedy-King lines, when he spoke he had nothing to say about the subject. In this respect the President was, wittingly or not, on message with his British and Irish allies. The word "disbandment" has yet to pass the lips of Bertie or Dermot Ahern or any senior British minister or official.

Officially the two governments are seeking "an end to all criminal and paramilitary activity" by the IRA or at most "a withering away" of the organisation. But no-one is actually saying out loud that which the dogs in the street know to be the case: that the Good Friday Agreement has no chance of being revived or Unionists persuaded to risk sharing power with Sinn Féin, post-Northern Bank, unless the IRA has been or is being stood down.

Unofficially, the word from London and Dublin is that IRA disbandment is a bridge too far for Gerry Adams and his allies on the Army Council; that if they pushed the issue too hard and lost, then the consequences for the peace process could be catastrophic.

Yet all are agreed that something must be done. A hint as to what that 'something' might be was given by Bertie Ahern during a recent interview on the BBC programme, Hearts and Minds. "If the IRA decides", he told Noel Thompson, "they want to stay with the old ways nobody is going to be able to convince them (otherwise) but I think then the leadership of Sinn Féin are going to have a very clear decision themselves to make. Are they going to stay with that way, that way of the past and that way of paramilitarism, criminality, holding on to guns or are they going to move forward on the political democratic project?"

In other words if Gerry Adams and his allies in the leadership can't persuade the IRA to go out of business then the IRA and Sinn Féin should decouple and go their separate ways. One can only speculate about the reaction of Mr Adams and his colleagues to the Taoiseach's words but something along the lines of a whoop of triumph accompanied by a fist punching the air would have been in order.

There is compelling evidence that the Provisional leadership has long cast wistful glances at the divorce option for it would bestow upon them the privilege of the harlot down the ages, to paraphrase Stanley Baldwin, that is the enjoyment of power without responsibility. Except in this case it would be the rest of Ireland that would get screwed.

At a stroke the Sinn Féin leadership would be relieved of all responsibility for IRA decommissioning, for bank robberies and for brutal murders of the sort visited upon the unhappy McCartney family so recently. Yet at the same time the party would extract leverage from the same acts, or lack of them, for everyone would know that divorced or not, Sinn Féin and the IRA still live in the same house.

The reaction of Sinn Féin spokespersons to IRA actions in these circumstances is easy to predict. A sad shaking of the head, a formal condemnation and then the comment that: 'of course this is all the product of an unacceptable police service' or British securocrats, or Unionist intransigency and so on. The IRA still will not go away until Sinn Féin's agenda is met, in other words.

This is not the first time the idea of a Sinn Féin-IRA divorce has been floated. Gerry Adams first suggested it back in the 1990-1991 period, before the ceasefires. He was frustrated at IRA operations that killed civilians and saw divorce as a way of being able to criticise the IRA in public. His suggestion had a twist. Sinn Féin activists who sat on the IRA's Army Council should be allowed to stay on, albeit secretly.

The divorce would have been a sham and it was too much for others in the IRA leadership, as one source privy to the episode told me: "...it was rejected out of hand so strongly that it was never heard of again".

Until recently that is, courtesy of the Taoiseach's BBC interview. So attractive and profitable is the divorce scenario that the Sinn Féin leadership might be well advised not even bothering to try to disband the IRA but to go straight to it. And if they did who is to say that the same lie attempted in 1990-91 will this time not prevail? Or put another way: does anyone seriously think that the control freaks of Sinn Féin would really let the IRA go its own way?

The underlying issue is about power and strength. Do Gerry Adams and his allies in the Provisional leadership have the power and strength to set the IRA on the path to disbandment? Implicit in Bertie Ahern's BBC interview is the belief that they don't or mightn't.

But the Taioseach must face this conundrum. If Gerry Adams was not strong enough in 1990-91 to contrive a divorce on his own terms but can pull it off in 2005, what does that say about who now exercises most power in the Provisional leadership? And if his influence is strong enough to do that why not go the whole hog and start standing the IRA down?

April 2, 2005

Ed Moloney is a journalist and the author of A Secret History of the IRA.

This article appears in the April 2, 2005 edition of the Irish Times.