Comment: Unionists’ response to armed IRA avoids difficult questions

It seems that the British and Irish governments don't mind the IRA keeping guns ' so long as they are only used on nationalists, says Norman Baxter
It seems that the British and Irish governments don't mind the IRA keeping guns ' so long as they are only used on nationalists, says Norman Baxter

In 1911 when Edward Carson was asked to lead unionism during the Home Rule crisis, he said: “I am not for a game of bluff, unless men are prepared to make great sacrifices which they clearly understand, the talk of resistance is useless.”

These were profound words. Carson understood that effective political leadership was not about bluff.

Norman Baxter

Norman Baxter

In 2015 the electorate also need leaders who are ‘not for a game of bluff’. However, the current political crisis at Stormont provides evidence that some unionists are more about bluff than sacrifice – more about media presentation than political substance.

The political response to the murder of Kevin McGuigan demonstrates that both the DUP and UUP are in a moral maze trying to find their way through ditches that they have dug to trip each other.

Stormont was put in turmoil when the police said that the IRA still existed, contrary to what the electorate was told.

The only real surprise in the chief constable’s confirmation that the Army Council continued to function was that a number of British and Irish politicians and others, had not grown Pinocchio-sized noses over many years, as they spun deception after deception to conceal the ongoing criminal activities of the terrorist group.

The resignations and rotations within the Executive were meant to portray strong leadership but it has only served to demonstrate that there is no clear political strategy to promote the benefits of the Union.

The real problem for unionism is that the two main parties are consumed in contesting each other through bluff and counter bluff, whilst Sinn Fein marches on with its long-term political objectives under the direction of the Army Council.

Unionist political leaders need to appreciate that the Provisional IRA leadership believes that it is the natural successor of the ‘true Republic’ of 1916.

Therefore, they believe that they have a legitimate right to direct Sinn Fein politicians to act in the political interests of the Provisional IRA to destabilise Northern Ireland’s constitutional position within the United Kingdom and herald in a socialist unitary Irish state.

The Assessment on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland published by the Secretary of State was surprising in the candour of its findings. The report confirmed the existence of the Army Council and asserted that it was focused on the political process, but retained control over weapons and directing serious crime. This stark reality posed no obstacle to the political wing of an active terrorist group, with access to an unquantified number of weapons, holding government ministries.

The next day political normality resumed.

The Army Council was continuing to direct criminality and oiling their guns, whilst Sinn Fein was running government departments.

Was this a moment for the electorate to ask if unionist political rhetoric was bluff?

Have unionist leaders forgotten the long-term republican strategy outlined at the 1981 Sinn Fein Ard Fheis – “Will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”

Now it seems that the British and Irish governments don’t object either, providing PIRA guns are only used to kill nationalists.

Interestingly, one question was not addressed in the Assessment and remains unanswered – is the Army Council populated by senior Sinn Fein members or do senior Sinn Fein members hold positions of authority within the remaining IRA command structure?

This goes to the heart of the democratic credentials of Sinn Fein. Are they a constitutional political party or a strategic wing of an illegal terrorist organisation? I suspect the prevailing view is that it is better to avoid the answer to this question, if the truth would require real sacrifices to achieve political institutions built on foundations of truth, justice and reality.

The ghosts of armed paramilitaries pulling the strings of political puppets must be excised from Stormont; and unionist leaders should stop huffing and bluffing and provide a united leadership to achieve this.

Norman Baxter is a retired RUC and PSNI detective chief superintendent