He claims the assault followed his refusal to pay protection money to the IRA. Local scuttlebutt instead suggests Toner led a vandalism spree in the village on Halloween. The unspoken codicil is that he got what he deserved.
“There is a series of ongoing antisocial behavior. We have had people complaining to us bitterly about what has been happening,” said Sinn Fein’s man in Camlough, Conor Murphy, who angrily rejects the extortion story. “I think people got to the end of their tether.”
The antisocial behavior to which Murphy refers is that of the alleged miscreant and not of the self-appointed guardians of the public weal who battered him senseless. He does not suggest that people have reached the end of their tether with punishment attacks. A decent and amiable guy in person, Murphy does not deny republican involvement. To do so would raise gales of laughter in the local hostelries, where teens running amok are considered more objectionable than Talibanesque vigilantes exacting their pound of flesh on Main Street.
The euphemism for such paramilitary beatings is “community policing,” which casts the assaults as a necessary civic response in the absence of a trustworthy police force. Even in neighborhoods that are rife with petty crime, rejection of the police is understandable given its sordid history of roadside executions, casual brutality, intimidation, and collusion with loyalists. (A cynic might submit that a litany of summary murders, intimidation and brutality ought to render the IRA equally unwelcome, but I digress). However, the fact that citizens are entitled to jeer the cops does not mean that Sinn Fein has a right to encourage or demand it.
Since the RUC was renamed a year ago — a product of the Good Friday agreement — Sinn Fein has refused to join the new Policing Board and issued edicts to constituents against any cooperation with the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. Presumably this wariness goes beyond fears of competition in the brutality business. As a point of principle, I side with those who are suspicious of law enforcement. Sinn Fein no longer has that luxury. Having accepted the bona fides of the Northern Ireland state and spent four years as an enthusiastic participant in its administration, it is farcical for Sinn Fein to insist that nationalists continue to reject the state police as illegitimate.
Granted, the RUC was rotten to the core, but opponents have long said this of the republican movement too. If Sinn Fein can chuck every vestige of what it once represented for the good of the peace process, should its leaders not consider the possibility that the police might be capable of the same metamorphosis? Surely dealing with the cops could not be that much more unsettling for republicans than having their leaders administer the queen’s writ at Stormont.
Truthfully, embracing the modest reforms of the new policing structure would not be anathema to the Sinn Fein leadership. The practiced veneer of resistance has little to do with the welfare of nationalists and everything to do with the party’s need to massage and manage its grassroots. From the outset of the peace process, each private watering down of principle has been preceded with a public display of mau-mauing militancy choreographed to mollify the faithful and outflank dissenters. Eventually Sinn Fein’s stance on policing will be revealed as more tactic than principle, as were its policies on internal settlements, abstentionism, and decommissioning.
The day is approaching when Sinn Fein will declare the PSNI reforms workable, join the Policing Board, and encourage its own enforcers to enlist for a badge. This is, I suppose, only fair, since many demonstrate considerable mastery of the one historical requirement for a police career in the North: a stomach for extrajudicial brutality. As for the treatment dispensed to recalcitrant members of the nationalist community — or, for that matter, to dissident republicans — only a uniform now distinguishes the IRA from the RUC. As Yeats observed, the horse changes riders but the lash goes on.
Policing is really the last hurdle on Gerry Adams’s long journey. When he clears it, and he will, the IRA will have come full circle back to what it was 30 years and 3,000 lives ago: a Hibernian rump defending Catholic neighborhoods against transgressors. Both history and the nightly sectarian battles in Belfast show there is no shame in fighting for your streets. But while claiming to have entered a new phase in its war of liberation against the British, the reality is that the IRA is now engaged in little more than a territorial scuffle with hooligans, fought in alleys with baseball bats and iron pipes.
This may constitute community defense of a sort, and many nationalists clearly tolerate or welcome it as both necessary and justified. But it is not republicanism. Perhaps when that fact is acknowledged we will be spared the now-familiar spectacle of Sinn Fein conducting a chorus of “A Nation Once Again” when they know the band is actually playing “Rule Britannia.”
The opinions expressed represent those of the writer, not necessarily those of the Irish Echo.