Can Sinn Fein get beyond the IRA and move on?

In the wake of the IRA’s statement, Dennis Murray’s statement that he had never seen anything like this before on the BBC’s flagship Ten O’Clock News last night, reflects the kind of surprise that most of us who’ve been watching the Republican Movement from the outside at the latest statement.

It makes sense as a short term tactic. One can imagine that it 1 shows the IRA is serious in its call to local people to support the McCartneys, and 2 by publicly asserting its ‘right’ to shoot people it deems to be guilty by its own ‘legitimate’ internal processes it may hope to stem any further damaging revelations of criminality within its own areas.

After that, it is hard to see how this statement furthers Sinn Fein’s political cause or its longer term objective of taking power through its armalite/ballot box strategy. The confidence of its (albeit still small) middle class support will not be helped that eleven years into a ceasefire, the IRA still feels no compunction about offering to shoot people in the name of justice.

Morning Ireland interviewed a number of people coming out of a Sinn Fein meeting in Navan last night. It makes for interesting listening (sound file). One particularly articulate guy pointed out that the offer was for a local audience, another said he understood the frustration of the IRA with the antagonistic media coverage it had been getting recently. But others worried that this far into a peace process the IRA still felt it could send such a strong public signal.

The movement is losing ground in the media too. The British left liberal establishment (which some argue is now the controlling interest in the BBC), whose favour the party has courted assiduously over many, many years (and who for the most part have backed them through thick and thin), are turning on them in droves. If there is not some rigourous internal discussion on this I’d be very surprised.

The temptation in such circumstances is to circle the wagons and simply defend against the aggressive media pack. This may be a natural and perfectly understandable response. And they would not be the first to do it. It’s what the British Labour party of the 1980’s early 1990’s did until the velvet revolution of the Blair years.

Whether you see Blair as a force for good or evil (and many on the British left are genuinely conflicted on this), he picked a demoralised party up off the floor, injected it with confidence and enthused it with a new intellectual energy (which his opponents are still having difficulty understanding never mind dealing with). As a result he was able to re-engage successfully with a media that had been almost universally hostile to his party for over twenty years.

In Ireland the media’s hostility has not caused the party any visible damage, yet. What damage there is by the time of the next big elections in May may be well below the waterline – ie, they could simply fail to gain council seats they might have otherwise have expected to come to them before the bank raid. It’s doubtful they’ll be losing any.

But in the medium to long term this level of media hostility across the board is not compatible with the ambitions of a modern political party. A radical departure may be required before it can extract itself from the deep hole its been digging its way into since late December.

So, is the IRA Sinn Fein’s equivalent of the British Labour Party’s Clause IV?

If it is, it will almost certainly require a fierce internal battle. As a result, we may see things get much worse before the movement gets to grips with what the outside world sees as it conflicting messages of committment to peace on one hand and threats of violence on the other.

Despite the wishes of Sinn Fein’s most inveterate opponents, the party’s mandate is not going away any time soon. But without some tangible resolution of this conflict inside Sinn Fein, it would appear that this much vaunted peace process will not be moving on either.