Sinn Fein is in the doghouse. The pan-nationalist front has been consigned to the political dustbin. The political process is at a standstill and the DUP has the whip hand.
Republicans are asking themselves just what is going on.
Just three months ago, things seemed much rosier. The republican leadership had apparently won the internal argument for IRA disbandment and the movement was preparing to move into a “new mode.” From this would flow huge electoral rewards for Sinn Fein — a power-sharing executive in Stormont and, quite possibly, coalition government in the South.
Party strategists salivated at the prospect of Sinn Fein power-sharing ministers meeting their Dublin government counterparts at North South summits. The party would advance its pursuit of an independent Ireland through sheer practical example.
Meanwhile, the SDLP would have been finished off, unionists would be working the political institutions, the British army would have left the North and republicans would be helping to run criminal justice and policing.
However, everything has changed utterly. The message from Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and the DUP is a stark one: “disband the IRA and decommission its weapons and then we might do business.” The Northern Bank robbery has unleashed new forces. Gone are the old dynamics that sustained the political process through previous traumas.
Republicans are reevaluating the political landscape. Sources say that a debate is under way in republican circles. While dismissing talk of splits or a return to IRA violence, they point out that many grassroots republicans are deeply unhappy with the events of recent weeks.
Just what this means for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness is unclear. The two men have staked their political reputations on “delivering” the IRA.
The political forces that helped bring republicans in from the cold in the 1990s are gone. The Irish government is no longer prepared, it says, to turn a blind eye to ongoing paramilitarism. The SDLP now speaks of usurping Sinn Fein. It claims the party has botched up the political process and tarnished the “good name” of Northern nationalism. The British government is towing the DUP line.
Just how republicans get around the current difficulties remains to be seen. Republican options are limited.
Does Sinn Fein wait around for the current furor to die down in the hope that things will get back to where they where last year? Dare it, as Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern suggested, break from the IRA? Should it withdraw from the political process and struggle on through elections with the albatross of the IRA around its neck? Or does it convince the IRA to stand down unilaterally, thus freeing the party in one single bound?
Some observers are tempted to believe that the vitriol toward republican emanating from Leinster House will subside and the Irish government will eventually again sit down with Sinn Fein in order to hammer out a deal.
However, the DUP feels under no pressure to go back to the negotiating table anytime soon. It is also calling for immediate IRA disbandment. Once this happens, replete with photographic evidence, the DUP will then “monitor” developments before considering talks with republicans. Not even the most optimistic could envisage the DUP watering down this demand in the coming months.
A “break” from the IRA cannot even be contemplated by Sinn Fein. The party insists that the two organizations are entirely separate. Such a move would be dismissed by unionists as a stunt in any event.
To walk away from the political process would be an explicit acknowledgement that the entire Sinn Fein strategy had failed. The party would struggle to expand its vote given the continued existence of the IRA.
The notion of unilateral IRA disbandment holds some attraction for nationalists and republicans.
Many nationalists, though angry with the anti-Sinn Fein onslaught in recent weeks, recognize that so long as the IRA exists Sinn Fein will remain on the back foot.
The Northern Bank heist and, more recently, the allegations surrounding the murder of East Belfast man Robert McCartney two weeks ago, have ensured that Sinn Fein spends most its time deflecting criticism. The party’s days are now consumed with counterspin, such are the forces ranged against it.
With no sign of a significant softening in tone from the two governments, Sinn Fein will have to sit out the difficult summer months and the inevitable problems that come with the marching season.
The Westminster elections, which are expected to be called for May, will probably enhance the Sinn Fein mandate. However, Dublin and London claim that this mandate does not supersede concerns about paramilitary activity. An extra Sinn Fein MP or two is not likely to change the political situation dramatically.
According to nationalist historian Brian Feeney, the IRA will disband — perhaps as soon as the autumn. He says it is not a matter of if, but when. Feeney, who recently authored a landmark book on Sinn Fein’s 100-year history, said that the republican movement had no other option but to stand down the IRA.
Advocates of such a strategy point out that such a move would call the DUP’s bluff. Forgotten in the maelstrom of recent months is the fact that the DUP turned down IRA disbandment over the issue of photographs. Many suggest that it was simply unprepared to go into government with republicans and contrived an escape route. If it were to now balk at IRA disbandment, they say, republicans and nationalists could justifiably argue for the two governments to move on without the party.
Republican sources are skeptical of Feeney’s analysis but concede that the notion of unilateral action cannot be ruled out.
Observers in the South believe that the trenchant approach being adopted by Bertie Ahern stems from his belief that the republican movement remains relatively unified.
Having received assurances from republicans last year that IRA disbandment could be speedily carried out in the event of a deal with the DUP, Ahern believes that there is no reason why it cannot be done now. Hence, his speed in deflecting the recent IRA statements that warned of dangers to the political process. Dublin does not fear splits or a return to violence.
Sinn Fein, electorally speaking, has nothing to lose and everything to gain through IRA disbandment.