The future: not so bright

  • 11 March 2005
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By offering to shoot the killers of Robert McCartney, The IRA has further tarnished the image of Sinn Féin, writes Suzanne Breen

It was as if April Fools' Day had come early. At first, nobody believed the IRA statement. Even republican grassroots found it incredible that the Provisionals, supposedly on ceasefire, had issued a statement saying they had offered to shoot the murderers of Robert McCartney.

Everyone knows the IRA has continued with "punishment" shootings since 1994.

But it has never admitted so publicly. Even when it was killing drug dealers in the mid to late1990s, it used the cover-name DADD (Direct Action Against Drugs).

Yet here was the IRA, under greater political pressure than at any other time during the peace process, brazenly announcing its continuing proclivity for violence.

It wasn't something whispered by an IRA source to a reporter in a bar. Nor was it a quickly cobbled together message. The statement was five pages long. It was an amazing admission. As Bertie Ahern said: "Sometimes you hear these things and it's hearsay but then you actually see it in a written form."

The DUP, Michael McDowell, and the entire brigade of Sinn Féin's opponents, couldn't have been handed a greater gift. But this IRA statement was aimed first and foremost at the republican constituency.

Many IRA and Sinn Féin members and supporters have been appalled by the McCartney killing. They couldn't care less for the Northern Bank or its millions but the brutal murder of a Sinn Féin voter is another matter entirely.

In rural areas particularly, there is concern over the growing thuggish element and drink culture among the Belfast IRA. Whether or not the media and political establishment likes it, substantial support exists for "punishment" attacks in working-class nationalist areas of the North.

Pretending otherwise is dishonest.

When the IRA "abuses" this and attacks individuals simply because it personally or politically dislikes them, it runs the risk of a backlash. But shooting the murderers of Robert McCartney would be regarded as legitimate by many residents in republican areas.

Yet was the IRA serious about taking such action? From the outset, the McCartney sisters had adopted a principled moral stand and insisted they wanted their brothers' murderers imprisoned, not assassinated. It was justice from an official court, not a kangaroo one, they demanded.

So the IRA already knew when it met the family, it was making an offer which would be refused. If the Provos had been serious about shooting the McCartney killers, they would have just done so. The IRA has been aware of the identities of the murderers for weeks.

And since when did it ever consult anyone in advance of a punishment attack anyway? Just weeks before the McCartney murder, the IRA in the Short Strand shot a local teenager, Padre Pio-style, for alleged involvement in a stabbing. It didn't carry out a consultation exercise beforehand; it just did it.

Yet the IRA threat to shoot the McCartney killers – real or feigned – has been greeted with dismay by the two governments and mainstream nationalism.

It's difficult to imagine even the dumbest, least experienced Provo approving such a statement, let alone such smart, seasoned operators as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Yet both men sit on the Army Council and it is inconceivable that such major statements are issued without their approval.

One theory even raises the possibility that it's in the interests of Adams and McGuinness for the IRA to release increasingly insane statements because the outrage caused intensifies the pressure for the disbandment of the Provisionals for which, ultimately, the two men strive.

Yet the IRA statement had a negative impact on Sinn Fein's image and wiped out any gains the party had made from the propaganda coup of the McCartney sisters' attendance at the ardfheis.

By distancing itself from the IRA's shooting offer, and stressing it opposed punishment attacks, Sinn Féin attempted to put clear green water between itself and its armed wing.

But that strategy is destined to failure. The two governments are unlikely to accept such a distinction and it's Sinn Féin's relationship with the IRA which keeps it in the headlines. If the party can't deliver the IRA, there seems no point in accommodating its constant high-profile visits to Downing Street, Hillsborough, Leinster House and elsewhere.

The IRA didn't particularly care what unionists thought of its statement.

There is no likelihood of a deal before the May election so the need to woo the DUP is non-existent.

However, Sinn Féin shouldn't underestimate the hardening of opinion against it in DUP ranks. The Rev Ian Paisley's recent comments about doing business with republicans if there were "no arms and no crime" doesn't represent a softening of the party line, according to senior sources.

Indeed, they say the DUP doesn't see the point in any future political negotiations as it believes it has nothing more to add. The DUP position is that it is solely up to the republican movement to put its house in order.

Any 'decontamination' period – between IRA decommissioning and Sinn Féin entering government – would have to be even longer than demanded last December, according to party insiders.

The DUP also notes a hardening of attitude among ordinary unionists against Sinn Féin participation in government regardless of what the IRA does. A Belfast Telegraph/BBC opinion poll this week shows less than half of unionists want the Assembly restored with Sinn Féin involvement even if the IRA disbands and dumps all weapons.

There is a complete lack of trust of Sinn Féin leaders within the unionist community. Eighty per cent of DUP voters – almost two-thirds of Ulster Unionists – and 60 per cent of supporters of the moderate Alliance party, would support the arrest of senior Sinn Féin leaders on the grounds of prior knowledge of IRA activities.

The survey also showed the DUP (28 per cent support) pulling even further ahead of the Ulster Unionists (16 per cent). Based on that figure, the DUP would win three additional seats in May's Westminster election – East Antrim, South Antrim, and David Trimble's constituency of Upper Bann.

The opinion poll shows support falling for Sinn Féin among middle-class nationalists but still holding up relatively well. It has dropped from 26 per cent in last year's European election, (and 24 per cent in the 2003 Assembly election) to 20 per cent.

Sinn Féin is now neck-and-neck with the SDLP, also on 20 per cent, but opinion polls in the North traditionally under-estimate the Sinn Féin vote.

The survey was carried out before the latest IRA statement.