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
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
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