“Martin’s uncompromising criticism of Sinn Fein put it up to the other parties to respond…”

In case you missed it, I got a mention (€) in yesterday’s Irish edition of The Sunday Times by Sarah McInerney:

“Fianna Fail has spent the past three or four years building a political presence in the north, consistently critiquing Sinn Fein on the justice issue,” he said. “It’s a long game plan. Martin has been trying to build a narrative bridge between the north and south so whenever things go wrong in the north, he’s there, and he can take that material and chuck it at the Shinners in the south.

“Fianna Fail will use it on the doorsteps, saying to people, ‘This is really what Sinn Fein is all about’ — turf wars, drugs money, the IRA, all of that dirty stuff that might affect people in working-class Dublin areas and might give them pause to think about who these nice shiny new Sinn Fein councillors and TDs actually are, and who they’re attached to.”

Martin’s uncompromising criticism of Sinn Fein put it up to the other parties to respond. On Monday evening, Labour leader Joan Burton said the IRA was “an insidious threat . . . to the whole of this island”.

On Tuesday, Fitzgerald did an about-turn. In a lengthy statement, she said she had asked the garda commissioner to conduct a “fresh assessment” on the status of the IRA. “There is no doubt that people who have been associated with PIRA have been — and continue to be — involved in the most serious crime and neither Gerry Adams nor Sinn Fein can wash their hands of responsibility for that,” she said.

“What steps does Sinn Fein take to ensure that they do not benefit in any way from the proceeds of crime? Will he apologise for the fact that people who PIRA trained to kill may be continuing to do so in whatever capacity? And will he explain what parts of smuggling and money laundering ever honoured the legacy of 1916 which his party wish to hijack?”

The justice minister spent most of Tuesday afternoon doing the rounds of TV and radio interviews, attacking Sinn Fein. Some in the party admitted to being a little uncomfortable at the optics. “It was all a bit cack-handed,” said one senior Fine Gael figure. “Frances has been good up to now, but this was not good. She was caught on the back foot, and everyone could see it.”

Fealty said Fine Gael’s relative inexperience in dealing with Northern Irish issues was revealed last week. “This has caught them totally off guard,” he said. “The government hasn’t given a lot of thought to Northern Ireland. Resources in the Department of Foreign Affairs have been taken away from the north and redeployed to Europe. That has been their priority, and understandably so, but now we’re seeing they’re exposed on this issue.”

Sinn Fein was also exposed. On Wednesday, former justice minister Michael McDowell said the Irish and British governments allowed the IRA to continue as an “unarmed and withering husk” after it officially disarmed in 2005.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern confirmed this the following day. Sinn Fein’s claim that there is no longer an IRA structure, even one without any military purpose, was looking increasingly incredible.

Still, Adams stuck by it. “I don’t agree with the PSNI chief constable’s claim that the IRA exists — even in the benign way he paints it,” he said in a statement on Wednesday. “There is nothing more Sinn Fein can do.” On this last point, the Sinn Fein president might be right. Short of announcing that the IRA does, in fact, still exist, there are “very few plays left” for Adams, said Fealty.

“His best hope is the rope-a-dope strategy,” he said, referring to a boxing tactic used by Muhammad Ali against George Foreman in 1974, in which Ali allowed himself to be pummelled on the ropes by his opponent until Foreman was exhausted — at which point Ali came out fighting, and won. “I think all Adams can do now is put the gloves up,” said Fealty.

This is what Adams has done during his tenure as a Dail deputy, when he was hit with sex abuse claims involving the IRA, one involving his own brother. Thus far, it’s worked. Sinn Fein has proven largely immune to levels of negative publicity that would have destroyed other parties.

So how much will it suffer if the Northern Irish assembly collapses? In the wake of Hamilton’s comments, Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist party (UUP), stormed down the steps in Stormont to make a “significant announcement”. The news that the IRA still existed, with a command structure, had “shattered trust”, he said, and the UUP intended pulling out of the executive.

The assembly can survive without the UUP, but the party’s stance puts huge pressure on the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) to take an equally unforgiving approach. DUP leader Peter Robinson is due to meet British prime minister David Cameron to discuss the issue “very soon”.

Fealty said there is an inevitability to the outcome, however. “If you look at what Robinson has been saying in the past few months, warning about Stormont collapsing, it’s clear that’s where it was going because both Sinn Fein and the DUP wanted out,” he said.

“But, until now, Robinson was comfortable in the knowledge that he would be controlling the crash. Now, Nesbitt has grabbed the steering wheel, and Robinson is no longer in charge. Robinson will slow down time, as he always does, but the UUP’s exit means the end will come somewhere between the middle and the end of the month.”

In the absence of the Northern Irish assembly, direct rule will return and the UK government will put in a raft of controversial budget cuts — which Sinn Fein has been opposing — wreaking hardship on northern citizens.

Perhaps, Sinn Fein is not too worried. “If you were to be cynical about all this, the collapse actually suits Sinn Fein,” said Fealty. “If there’s nothing to do in the north except a bit of backroom negotiations, that gives Sinn Fein the chance to concentrate all their efforts on the election down here.

“They’re already shipping some [Almost all? – Ed] of their talent down south. I’m not saying they masterminded this whole thing, I don’t think they did. But it could work out quite well for them, in the end. [Comment added]”

(I am, mostly, still on holiday so try to, mostly, play the ball rather than the man, whilst I’m gone?)

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