Jim Allister: Latest IRC report heightens the unionist belief that there is an effort to sanitise the IRA

There has long been a belief within the unionist community that while there is an unmerited focus on the supposed misdeeds of the army and police during the terrorist campaign there is a concerted effort to sanitise the Provisional IRA and even draw a veil over their continuing activity.

Tuesday, 12th November 2019, 5:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 12th November 2019, 9:13 pm
Members of the Independent Reporting Commission from left Tim O'Connor, Monica McWilliams, John McBurney and Mitchell Reiss in 2018. Picture by Stephen Davison, Pacemaker

The recent report from the Independent Reporting Commission underscores that this is not just a matter of perception but is a belief rooted in fact.

It is worth remembering that the IRC was established in the aftermath of the Provisional IRA murder of Kevin McGuigan in 2015.

After the murder the government produced a Paramilitary Assessment which clearly stated that the PIRA:

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Jim Allister writes: 'A month ago Simon Byrne told Stephen Nolan that he had no evidence to suggest the PIRA still exists. Now the PSNI tell us that what was said four years ago about the Provos continuing influence remains the case. Didn’t Simon Byrne ask about the status of the PIRA when he became chief constable?'

Retained an “Army Council” which members believed oversaw both the PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy;

Retained “departments” with specific responsibilities and

Still had weapons which had not been decommissioned.

Now, just four years on from the PIRA murder which prompted the setting up of the group, a member tells us that there is no mention of the PIRA in the latest report because “there are those in power who believe that their focus should be elsewhere”.

Jim Allister QC is TUV leader and MLA for North Antrim. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

Mrs McWilliams’s comments reveal the stark truth at the heart of the process — that it is about rehabilitating violent republican terrorists in a way which would be damaged, perhaps irreparably, if the truth of what the PIRA continue to be engaged in were to be exposed to the light of day.

While the police and courts can examine the actions of soldiers and police officers 40 years ago with a fine tooth comb the powers that be have decided that the present day activity of the Provisionals should be ignored.

When we consider that it took a query from a News Letter journalist to confirm that the 2015 assessment of PIRA remains valid in late 2019 one does wonder what the point of the IRC is.

Do we really need yet another body which has no interest in getting to the truth of PIRA activity in Northern Ireland to produce reports supposedly about paramilitary activity telling us nothing about the most lethal paramilitary organisation in Northern Ireland?

If we were to have a serious examination of paramilitaries and their role in Northern Ireland the PIRA and its Army Council would have to come under the microscope.

An obvious piece of evidence worth exploring comes from the RHI inquiry.

As Sam McBride mentions in his book on the scandal at a key juncture the Sinn Fein finance minister was in contact with Padraic Wilson, a former “officer commanding” of IRA prisoners in the Maze, and Ted Howell, a man described by Ed Moloney as “arguably one of the most influential figures in the Provisionals”.

Máirtín Ó Muilleoir asked Howell if he was “content” for him to take a major decision as minister.

Why doesn’t the role of these senior but unelected and unseen republicans in the decision making process within government merit questions from a body which claims in the opening paragraph of its report to be reporting on “progress towards ending paramilitary activity”?

The RHI inquiry has turned a spotlight on the activity of the DUP in government and raised many troubling questions, not least because of evidence which was gathered from private email and phone records.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what would be turned up if a Sinn Fein run department was examined in the same fashion?

Doesn’t the IRC find it disturbing that even when a Sinn Fein department only came under the scope of the inquiry in a very limited way troubling questions arose as to who was pulling the strings of Sinn Fein ministers?

Could it be that the 2015 assessment that the “Army Council” oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein strategy is more than just a belief?

We will never know because, as a member of the IRC says, such questions are “political” and beyond their remit.

How convenient. Yet the IRC has no problem devoting a long section of their report to Brexit, the most political issue of our day!

The comments of the PSNI on the status of the 2015 Assessment of the PIRA also raises troubling questions.

A month ago the new chief constable told Stephen Nolan that he had “no evidence” to suggest the PIRA still exists. Now the PSNI tell us that what was said four years ago about the Provos continuing influence and role remains the case.

Why didn’t Simon Byrne know that? Didn’t he ask about the status of the PIRA when he became chief constable? Has he read the comments of his force to the News Letter? Did they come as news to him?

In one sense the Independent Reporting Commission report is unremarkable. It is yet another fig leaf designed to let the powers that be claim that they are doing something.

Yet in another sense it is very revealing about the lengths to which authorities are prepared to go to ignore what the PIRA is up to.