By Jack Holland
As Sinn Fein heads into the Irish general election, burning with ambition to make a breakthrough in the Republic, it finds itself in the happy position of being protected by its biggest political rival, Fianna Fail. The Fianna Fail party leader, Bertie Ahern, recently defended the republican movement as an honest bunch of guys when it denied responsibility for the Castlereagh police station raid in March.
“Down the years when the IRA say they were or were not involved in something, however horrific, it is usually factual,” he said. “That has been the experience. The Republican Movement said from the start that it had no involvement in this particular incident and I’ve no reason to disbelieve them.”
Let us leave aside for one moment the question as to whether this is a historically accurate statement. Let us look at the issue of Fianna Fail’s leader rushing to defend a movement the political wing of which is targeting many seats in the Dail held by Fianna Fail deputies.
Assuming Ahern believes what he says, his defense of the IRA is clearly aimed at halting further erosion of the peace process in Northern Ireland, which is being eaten away by allegations that the IRA continues to be active, regardless of its cease-fire, and regardless of the two acts of decommissioning it has carried out in the last six months.
In particular, the Irish government is worried that David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, will find himself in an untenable position if the allegations against the IRA stick, or if the pressure pushes the Northern secretary of state, Sir John Reid, to declare that the IRA’s cease-fire has been violated. But regardless of its motivation, his defense can only benefit Sinn Fein, which has been vociferous in its denials of IRA involvement either in the Castlereagh episode or the murder of Barney McDonald in Tyrone a month later. Ahern, like Sinn Fein, is anxious to confirm that the IRA has not violated its cease-fire and, therefore, Trimble and the Unionists have nothing to worry about. But a few Fianna Fail deputies might have.
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Ahern is not the first political party leader to find himself giving Sinn Fein a leg up when it comes to establishing its political credentials and winning seats. About 10 years ago, John Hume, the then leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, began a dialogue with Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s president. At the time, Sinn Fein had lost its only seat in Westminster, and the SDLP was the dominant nationalist party in Northern Ireland, with four seats and 23 percent of the vote, compared to Sinn Fein’s 10 percent. The aim of the discussions was to persuade the IRA to end its campaign of violence, get Sinn Fein into the political process and initiate a peace process that would lead to an eventual settlement. Hume succeeded. The IRA called a cease-fire, Sinn Fein got into all-party talks eventually, signed the Good Friday agreement, and by 2001 had replaced the SDLP as the major nationalist party in the North, with four seats in Westminster to the SDLP’s three.
During the early days of Hume’s efforts, he went out of his way to avoid embarrassing Sinn Fein. The SDLP once suppressed a party statement attacking drug use in Derry because a local Sinn Fein councilor, Hugh Brady, who himself had been actively campaigning against drugs, had just been caught with 42 grams of cannabis (21 in each of his socks). This was a relatively minor incident, but it was a sign of things to come. After the IRA’s cease-fire, when it began murdering alleged drug dealers under the pseudonym Direct Action Against Drugs, Hume and the SDLP refrained from pouncing on this violation, even though DAAD shot dead eight people in 1995 and ’96.
In 1996, the IRA ended its cease-fire, went back to what it calls “war” temporarily, without Hume ceasing to stand by Adams. Hume was thinking of his vision of peace, which, rightly, he did not want to abandon. But many in the SDLP were dismayed at what they saw was the exploitation of the situation by Sinn Fein for its own electoral benefit. Some thought Hume should have broken off contact with Adams after Feb. 9, 1996, when the IRA bombed London.
In fact, Hume was not the only one to suppress or ignore information embarrassing to the Sinn Fein and IRA leadership. When in 1993 the Special Branch acquired intelligence about prominent Sinn Fein leaders’ involvement in violence, some officers wanted it made public, but the British said no. They needed Adams and Martin McGuinness to make the peace process work.
This is the same logic being used by Bertie Ahern. If he damages the credibility of the IRA, he damages Sinn Fein, and hurts Gerry Adams. He also damages Trimble, who is in government with Sinn Fein on the basis that the IRA has given up violence for good. Proof to the contrary would further alienate Protestants from the Good Friday agreement and make it impossible for Trimble to continue. Reid is in the same position in Belfast. Say he has evidence that the IRA murdered Barney McDonald in mid-April. What benefits would come from making a fuss about it, and declaring the IRA had violated its cease-fire? The brutal truth is that in the peace process some murders are more politically acceptable than others.
The question is, of course, will Ahern’s defense of the IRA aid Sinn Fein in its campaign to become a political force in the Irish Republic? Will the veterans of Fianna Fail prove as politically altruistic as the SDLP? I for one think not.
To return to the question of the historical accuracy of the taoiseach’s remarks about the IRA always telling the truth. It is true that the IRA has often claimed responsibility for “unpopular” actions (in ordinary English, massacres of civilians). But it has also frequently lied. The list of example is a long one, going back to the early 1970s. It includes the Claudy bombing (1972), the Birmingham bombing (1974) the Mountainview Tavern bombing (1975), the Kingsmills massacre (1976), the Enniskillen bombing (1987), the DAAD killings (1995) and a series of murders of alleged drug dealers since then. There have also been a series of incidents such as the huge docks robbery in Belfast in June last year in which the IRA is suspected of being involved. In a technical sense, the IRA has not lied about it since, as far as I know, no one has publicly demanded that it make a statement about it.