Although others have suggested that the DUP was being set up to take pressure over its self declared unwillingness to engage with the largest nationalist political party Sinn Fein, it is the latter that continues to take the political heat this summer. Some of the damage would appear self inflicted. The last two years have seen its previously near faultless PR efforts veer off on several unseemly wobbles (sound file). Not least over the IRA’s (unnecessary?) reaction to the Police Ombudsman’s declaration that there was no evidence that Jean McConville was an informer. In Saturday’s Irish Times, Noel Whelan thinks it signifies longer term frustrations (subs needed):
Last Tuesday, RTE’s Tommie Gorman hinted at an internal contradiction in his radio interview (linked above), when he asked Gerry Adams “how long are we going to be getting rapid fire statements from P O’Neill if the IRA’s war is over? If you are pursuing Republican goals through political means, how long is the IRA going to stay around, muddying the waters, some would say undermining your political project?” Tellingly perhaps, Adams responded that he didn’t understand the question.
Interestingly Whelan speculates on how this particular contradiction may have arisen:
…one would have thought that the IRA would have realised that any statement it issued in response to the police ombudsman’s findings could only be counterproductive. Silence would have been the better part of valour – or at least of decency – but those directly involved in, or close to, Mrs McConville’s murder obviously really need to have it believed among their own community that she was an informer.
These people must also have sufficient power and influence within the republican movement to insist that this statement was issued and that Mrs O’Loan’s finding not stand unchallenged. Gerry Adams said this week that the IRA remained committed to “delivering closure” to the families of the disappeared. Closure on this aspect of the history of the Troubles, however, like many others, is available only on the IRA’s terms.
There has, Whelan argues, been a political price to pay:
Sinn Féin has a lot to be frustrated about these days. The peace process has always exerted a significant influence on Sinn Féin’s political fortunes, both North and South of the Border, not least because of the extensive and disproportionate media exposure which the party garners for its role in it. Notwithstanding the visit of the Taoiseach and the prime minister at the end of June, things have stagnated politically in Northern Ireland now for months and, as a result, Sinn Féin has been deprived of this crucial political and media oxygen.
He also believes that Sinn Fein is now stuck in first gear because of past procrastination:
Having delayed in delivering IRA decommissioning and disbandment, and undermining David Trimble in the process, the republican movement has only itself to blame now that it finds itself stuck in a process which is moving at the Democratic Unionist Party’s slower pace.
Perhaps most worrying for a party that has long since differentiated itself from its nationalist rival through its tangible ambitions in the Republic, it’s expected rapid march forward there has slowed to a walk-through-treacle pace:
After surging in the polls from 2002 to 2004, Sinn Féin’s vote share now appears to have topped out at 8 per cent or 9 per cent. There has been no decommissioning “bounce”.
He finishes by throwing another potential contributing factor on the fire: the outing of key informers within the Republican movement, and a subsequent outbreak of paranoia within the wider movement. Although as he also says, the extent of British infiltration may have been hyped out of all proportion, perhaps deliberately to undermine confidence.
But this slippery fingeredness pre-dates the Donaldson crisis. Indeed it first publicly surfaced some time after the party’s last unalloyed political high water mark: the November 2003 Assembly election. It came in the wake of the Northern Bank robbery and resulted, perhaps from what Brian Feeney at the time described as the fatal flaw in the Peace Process:
…in the end it will not have been the unionists or the British but the IRA which put itself out of business and in doing so laid bare the polite fiction about the republican leadership we have all indulged which has been the fundamental flaw in the peace process.
This has the smack of an unresolved internal strategic dilemma rather than one of tactics or arising from damage inflicted from the outside.
Adds: last year I argued that it was inconceivable that the party would not move to resolve this dilemma. Though it would seem (for the moment) that the timing of that resolution remains in the hands of the DUP.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty