Jonathan Caine is a Conservative peer and former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office.
In the autumn of 2015 I was immersed, along with a number of others, in talks at Stormont aimed at preventing the possible collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive.
Those talks ultimately led to the Fresh Start Agreement; power sharing continued for just over a further year until the next crisis brought about its collapse.
The main catalyst for those talks was the then crisis in the Executive’s finances, caused principally by Sinn Fein’s opposition to welfare reform. That issue was finally resolved by Sinn Fein performing a herculean U-turn and agreeing to allow a Conservative Government at Westminster to legislate for welfare reform, a devolved issue, at Stormont.
Yet there was a further backdrop to the talks. In May 2015 a prominent member of the Republican Movement, ‘Jock’ Davison, had been gunned down in the Markets area of Belfast. (Davison was the man who allegedly gave the signal for the brutal murder of Robert McCartney at a Belfast pub a decade earlier). His death was quickly followed in August by the reprisal killing of another well-known republican, Kevin McGuigan, in the Short Strand area of Belfast.
A few days later at a press conference in which they appealed for calm and no retaliation, the Police Service of Northern Ireland dropped the following bombshell: “One of our major lines of enquiry is that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in this murder.”
While the police refused to speculate on whether it was sanctioned at command level, others were less reticent. As Ed Moloney, the leading authority on the IRA, put it: “In practice, nothing happens in the IRA without the approval and knowledge of the IRA’s military and political leadership.”
I well remember the immediate impact of that PSNI statement. Within the Northern Ireland Office there was incredulity among officials, fearful of the possible implications for the political process, that the police could have stated such a thing publicly. Unionists were unsurprisingly outraged. The Ulster Unionist Party left the Northern Ireland Executive and went into Opposition. The then First Minister, Peter Robinson, pulled the majority of his ministers out of the Executive, leaving just Arlene Foster, the then Finance Minister, in place. Devolution had, Robinson claimed, been pushed ‘to the brink’.
In response Theresa Villiers, the then Northern Ireland Secretary, commissioned a reluctant MI5 and the PSNI to conduct a review of the “structure, roles and purpose” of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. I should add that she made clear her and the Government’s firm view that there was absolutely no justification for the existence of such groups, all of which remain illegal, either then or at any time in the past.
The report, which covered both republican and loyalist groups, was published on 20 October 2015. In respect of the Provisional IRA it confirmed that individual members remain involved in criminal activity, including large-scale smuggling and some murders. It concluded, however, that:
“The PIRA of the Troubles era is well beyond recall. It is our firm assessment that PIRA’s leadership remains committed to the peace process and its aim of achieving a united Ireland by political means.”
Yet the report also contained the following. Confirming that the structures of the IRA remained in place (albeit in a reduced form), including a senior leadership, the Provisional Army Council and some departments, it stated:
“PIRA members believe that the PAC oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy”, although it had a “wholly political focus”.
All of this made for deeply uncomfortable reading at the time. It did, though, give just sufficient cover for the Democratic Unionists not to crash out of Stormont, and the Executive survived until January 2017.
The Fresh Start Agreement, which dealt with welfare and finance issues, also contained new commitments by the Executive to tackle paramilitary activity (regrettably stalled for three years due to the lack of an Executive), this despite the Executive containing a party inextricably linked to a paramilitary group, some of whose members were involved in criminality.
Indeed in December 2015, the month after the Fresh Start Agreement, I attended a meeting in Dublin of the British Government, the Northern Ireland Executive, and the Irish Government to agree a new task force to tackle cross-border organised crime.
One of those representing the Executive meeting was the then deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. This was four days after one Slab Murphy had been convicted at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin, despite the support of Gerry Adams, who described Murphy as “a good republican” who had been treated “unfairly”. The irony of Mr McGuinness’s position was not lost on most of us in the room.
All of that was over five years ago, though I have no reason to believe that the assessment of the IRA has changed. Under the terms of the 1998 Agreement and on account of their democratic mandate in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein have ministerial representation in a devolved government within the United Kingdom. As a result of their democratic mandate gained a few weeks ago it now seems likely that they will form part of a sovereign government in the Republic of Ireland.
I would hesitate to tread into internal Dublin politics, though it would seem illogical – given their mandate and their position in government in Northern Ireland – not to say counter-productive, to seek to exclude Sinn Fein from office. For many years Unionists have been irritated by the double standard that Sinn Fein are somehow fit to be in government in Stormont but not Dublin.
It remains, however, deeply disturbing for many that a modern European democracy, and our closest neighbour, might shortly contain, or even be led, by a party that continues to have its strategy overseen by an Army Council.
I have spent more time in meetings with Sinn Fein than any other Conservative in British history. I will never agree with them about the past or ever condone what the IRA did. I can, though, acknowledge the moves they have made away from violence to politics.
However, too many ambiguities remain. These include as attempts to shield sex offenders, cover up murders, and glorify terrorists. Some of the celebrations of Sinn Fein candidates after the Irish election, chanting IRA slogans, will have caused many across the island of Ireland to shudder.
If they are to begin convincing people, therefore, that the journey to exclusively peaceful means is now complete it is surely time for the structures of the IRA, including its ‘Army Council’, to go for good.