Sinn Fein’s self interest more than pressure over the IRA, will keep the Assembly in being

So the pressure is mounting on Sinn Fein North and South to do – what exactly?  Agree to accept or at least put up with a revival of the International Monitoring Commission and  dissociate  themselves from the IRA? This would require a new  political calculus all round. Still, the Irish government may have made a move in that direction. Will the British follow?  The Sunday Times (£) reports a revival of pressure in the Shinners over the IRA’s ill gotten gains in good time for a build up to the election campaigns.  But the history of such pressure is not encouraging.

JUSTICE minister Frances Fitzgerald  is the most senior member of government to raise questions about an estimated €70m cash pile raised by republican paramilitaries each year. In an interview with The Sunday Times, Fitzgerald said the gardai had enjoyed significant successes against republicans involved in organised crime rackets which had resulted in the seizure of cash and contraband.

The justice minister said she could not comment on any specific case but said any support offered by Sinn Fein to people involved in crime was “indefensible” given the size of the criminal operations responsible for fuel and cigarette smuggling. “Any democratic society cannot tolerate this or show the slightest tolerance to it. Any law-abiding citizen would be concerned about what is happening.”

Asked about Sinn Fein’s denials of IRA involvement in crime, she said if there were legitimate questions being asked about the issue everyone, including Sinn Fein, had a duty to be clear about it and respond.

But what response will the two governments require Sinn Fein to make? That is the big question for the next several weeks.

In the Sunday Times former Irish Times editor Conor Brady has the background  which prompts the question ..

Every government since 1923 has accommodated an ambiguity about the existence of an illegal, unelected, armed cabal whose members persuade themselves that they have a legitimacy going back to the first Dail.,,

Both administrations on this island have had to manage this reality down the decades…

t is “live and let live”. It has little to do with morality or principle. It is utterly pragmatic. It suits nobody to have it disturbed or even to admit of its existence.

Thus a tolerable, pragmatic balance is struck. The garda Crime and Security Branch is pretty well on top of the dissidents. That suits both the state and the remnants of the mainstream IRA very well. There is little need for the authorities to worry about that mainstream. Many of them are living well on ill-gotten gains, on fuel smuggling or on laundered funds. But they are not engaged in hostilities against the state or its agencies. From time to time, individual members engage in criminal activity. But it is not “sanctioned” and can be attributed to individuals — mavericks — rather than to the organisation.

By pulling the UUP out of the Executive UUP leader Mike Nesbitt can claim credit for provoking this new surge of pressure to jolt IRA criminality back onto the political agenda,  as Newton Emerson nicely argues in both the Irish News and Sunday Times. But why should pressure succeed this time when it has bounced off Sinn Fein time and again?  Sinn Fein may decide to ride the pressure out and either call unionist bluff or leave them with the ignominy of bringing down the Assembly.

The possible game changer would be if the two governments and the SDLP supported political sanctions against Sinn Fein, leaving them isolated . Would they take the risk of linking them directly with killings and support their suspension from the Assembly? Could they do so legally, as legal challenge wold be expected? And whether they could or not, would the electorates north and south be impressed?

Up to now in the north, support for Sinn Fein has been measured  more by voters’ view of unionist behaviour than that of the residual  IRA. Nationalists still  do not feel secure in their gains and fear unionists are trying to undermine them. Sinn Fein’s reactions to pressure exploits this sentiment.  The most recent analysis of it comes from Fionnuala O’Connor in the Irish News.

The most lasting problem, from the start, has not been IRA guns under the table, nor an IRA structure that became a freeze-dried husk, in the words this week of the most anti-republican Dublin minister involved in negotiations about decommissioning, Michael McDowell. The problem that has hobbled progress most is, and has been, the state of unionism.

I don’t  entirely agree with Fionnuala.  By invoking the  long ago days of Jim Molyneaux, she discounts the distance  covered in  the  journey the unionist parties have taken since. She also underestimates the unionist commitment to the  institutions, however grudging.  Bending in their turn to the political forces which created power sharing, the DUP are the trimbilistas now. Ironically it’s now his own old party who are the new sceptics if not professing wreckers. They can afford to be as they are not the lynchpin of the system. All the same she rightly identifies the reasons why nationalists will be cynical  about the impact of the latest UUP  withdrawal from the Executive.

Like UU leaders before him, Nesbitt is quick to sign up to pan-unionism, rubbishing Parades Commission curbs on loyal order marches, splitting hairs to deplore flag-protest rioting while blaming the Alliance party for provoking rioters. His is not a leadership that inspires hope of genuine power-sharing. But he had a good Westminster election, installing a liberal and an Orangeman as MP, re-instating the old self-image of Ulster Unionism as a broad church. By pulling his party’s single minister off the executive, Nesbitt can further destabilise a Peter Robinson leadership whose authority has long since departed.

In the same move, he has thrown the SDLP into further disarray, and will stroke a Protestant communal instinct to be done with devolved arrangements that require continuing compromise.

If unionists stIck to “pan unionism “ so will  the other side cling to pan nationalism,  which has  favoured Sinn Fein for the past decade and more. We can only rely on the self interest of all parties  to keep the Assembly in being. Contrary to some assessments of Sinn Fein’s political interests, this will probably be enough.

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Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London