In the name of the Republic

  • 11 March 2005
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The IRA still regards itself as the one true army and the legitimate government of the Republic. Where does that leave Ahern's government? And what does it mean for the peace process? By Brendan O'Brien

If ever proof was needed that the IRA still holds to itself "legal" powers of the kind that challenges the very legitimacy of this State, it was lit it up in lights with these words: "the IRA was prepared to shoot the people directly involved in the killing of Robert McCartney."

That bombshell IRA statement dropped on news editors' desks last Wednesday afternoon to gasps of incredulity.

"Outrageous", said our Taoiseach, following a cascade of very negative media coverage for Sinn Féin and the IRA.

Martin McGuinness told his local radio station in Derry that it was a "mistake" to issue such a statement, but he wasn't getting into the business of disowning the IRA's view of itself as an army. Also, like Adams, he wasn't tolerating any criminalising of a legitimate political struggle. And why would he? Both Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams were long-war leaders of that "struggle" which, in the name of the Republic, killed more than 1,700 people and injured upwards of 10,000, maybe 15,000, leaving thousands to this day in permanent pain, debilitated by and addicted to morphine.

But back to Bertie Ahern's outrage. How far does his outrage go? Personal revulsion or a declaration of fundamental rejection? ... on behalf of this Republic: one Government, one Óglaigh na hÉireann.

Which brings us again to those IRA statements, and there were two of consequence. Taken together, they amount to a studied assertion that there still is another Óglaigh na hÉireann, replete with laws and legitimacy, the one that offered to shoot Robert McCartney's killers.

The statement of 25 February told us solemnly: "Following our investigation, the IRA leadership, along with the leadership of the Belfast Command, initiated disciplinary proceedings through Court Martial. This was in accordance with IRA Standing Orders."

It was in that context, according to the subsequent statement of 8 March, that "the IRA was prepared to shoot the people directly involved".

This places the leadership of Óglaigh na hÉireann directly in the firing squad. And, deny it as they may, very senior Sinn Féin leaders – Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris – are widely acknowledged within the Irish Government of Bertie Ahern to be on the Army Council of the IRA. And that IRA leadership has styled itself to be the legal government of the Republic, as proclaimed in earlier times.

Page five of the IRA's Green Book, its training manual for "volunteers", puts it this way: "the Army is the direct representatives (sic) of the 1918 Dáil Éireann parliament... as such they are the legal and lawful government of the Irish Republic... this ethical fact, should and must give moral strength to all volunteers, and all and every branch of the Republican Movement.

"The Irish Republican Army, its leadership, is the lawful government of the Irish Republic, all other parliaments or assemblies claiming the right to speak for and to pass laws on behalf of the Irish people are illegal assemblies."

Under this "lawful" authority Courts Martial and Standing Orders are instigated and obeyed. Court Martial rules say that the Court shall consist of three members of equal or higher rank than the accused. The Convening Officer will appoint one member of the Court as President. The case for and against the accused is made by the Defence Counsel and the Prosecuting Counsel.

Members of the Court each swear an oath, as does the accused. The verdict and sentence shall be set down in writing. In the case of the death penalty, sentence must be ratified by the Army Council.

All of that and more lies behind the IRA's recent statement that the IRA leadership initiated disciplinary proceedings through Court Martial, which led on to their offer to the McCartney family to shoot those found "guilty" by the President of the Court and its two other members, duly sworn in.

And if the death penalty must be ratified by the Army Council, where does that leave those Sinn Féin leaders assumed to be on that body (the lawful government of the Irish Republic)? For that matter, where does it leave Bertie Ahern, Taoiseach of this Republic?

Of course, people say: sure who believes the Green Book and all that "lawful government" stuff? That was armed struggle time, way back. The peace process was dispensing with that guff as Sinn Féin TDs and MLAs took their seats in those illegal assemblies north and south. Times had moved on. Yes, but.

Remember that spat about words last December as the Sinn Féin/DUP deal fell at the final hurdle. At issue was a form of words required of the IRA by both governments, namely: "recognising the need to uphold and not to endanger anyone's personal rights and safety, all IRA volunteers have been given specific instructions not to engage in any activity which might endanger the new agreement."

The IRA – strongly supported by Sinn Féin – refused to deliver the crucial words: "the need to uphold and not to endanger anyone's personal rights and safety". Why? Commentators and politicians focused on the wriggle room this omission would give the IRA to continue criminal activities. True, but not the whole story.

Those crucial missing words were designed by governments to close down the IRA as an organisation per se. That's what the IRA refused. Without those words would the IRA have been free, for instance, to set up a Court Martial, complete with President, Defence and Prosecution Counsel, and dispense justice? When you look at it coldly, the answer is Yes, provided the outcome did not endanger the new agreement. Tricky stuff.

But there was, in any case, no deal. To get one, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and even Martin Ferris, will have to face something quite terrible – dispense with the IRA and its "lawful government" altogether and see who comes with them along a thoroughly political road: within the confines of the laws of this Republic. Not that one.

Sinn Féin's embryonic new constitution gives them just that chance. Of course, those left behind will likely continue with their Courts Martial, declaring themselves the true republicans. That's the price.