I wonder if Gerry Adams, the Sinn Finn leader, remembered his old adversary Margaret Thatcher as he stood in Government Buildings in Dublin last week and said that dissident republicans “shouldn’t have room to breathe”? He liked the image so much, he repeated it in a press statement. “It is crucial that there is no breathing space given to these unrepresentative groups and that there is no sense of ambiguity about our collective opposition to their actions.”
It was a remarkable echo of the Iron Lady’s call for the Provisional IRA to be denied the “oxygen of publicity” when its campaign was going full tilt in the 1980s and Adams was a leading spokesman for the terrorists. Adams and Thatcher are, politically, morally and in every other way, poles apart. Yet it’s hard to escape the fact that the Sinn Fein leader now finds himself in a similar position to the former prime minister, so he subconsciously reaches for some of the same vocabulary.
Where terrorism, or armed struggle, as he preferred it, once served his purpose and gave him a bargaining chip, it is now an unequivocal threat to all he has achieved. Preventing a new IRA campaign from emerging is not just a political imperative; it is a legacy issue. Adams’s life will have been for nothing if his decision to lead the republican movement into compromise fails at this point.
There is also the small fact that, unlikely though it now seems, if the dissidents do actually gain traction, Adams himself would eventually go the way of all compromisers and become a target.
It happened to Michael Collins, the leader of republican forces in the Irish war of independence who, when in government, was gunned down by dissidents.
To put it bluntly, Adams and Martin McGuinness, once known to the British Establishment as “the Bogside butcher” but now feted as the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, have both moved from poacher to gamekeeper. It has been a slow shimmy rather than an abrupt leap. For years they talked peace but counted on violence to get them what they wanted.
Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the former Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) chief constable, compared Sinn Fein’s stance in the days of the 1990s peace overtures to that of a man with a vicious dog beside him. He would tell you it wasn’t his dog and he couldn’t be responsible for its actions but he was trying to keep it calm. He would urge you to cooperate with his efforts or things might turn nasty. Those days are now gone. The dog is now as ready to turn on Sinn Fein as on anyone else.
After 10 years of trying, diehard splinter groups have succeeded in murdering three members of the security forces. The deaths of the soldiers Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar in Antrim and of Stephen Carroll, a Catholic constable in the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), in Lurgan removed any room for equivocation.
Peter Robinson, the Democratic Unionist party first minister, who is now Sinn Fein’s partner in government, put it well when he posed shoulder to shoulder with McGuinness and Sir Hugh Orde, the PSNI chief constable, last week. “This is a battle of wills between the political class and the evil gunmen – the political class will win,” Robinson declared. Orde, still shocked by the death of the first PSNI officer to be killed by terrorists since the force was created from the RUC, had just given McGuinness and Adams a briefing on the security threats their joint administration faced. He admits it felt slightly “wacky”.
It was clear the gunmen in Antrim were former comrades of McGuinness in the Provisional IRA and that one of the men being held for questioning on the Carroll murder was a former Sinn Fein councillor. In the recent past McGuinness and other Sinn Fein members might have been expected to raise concerns about the rights of detainees and security policy.
After the murder of Robert McCartney, killed by republicans after a disagreement in a Belfast bar, Sinn Fein condemned the police for carrying out house searches in pursuit of the killers and had refused to call for statements to be made to the police. Only two weeks ago McGuinness had threatened to withdraw confidence in Orde after it emerged he had called in a small number of undercover troops to boost his technical capability against the dissidents.
This time there was no agonising. McGuinness spoke even more strongly than Robinson, the unionist hardliner. “These people are traitors to the island of Ireland; they have betrayed the political desires, hopes and aspirations of all of the people who live on this island,” he said, calling for all republicans to give information to the police. He later pledged to do so himself if he had any.
There is no honourable retreat from such words and, like Thatcher, Sinn Fein is not for turning. The party has burnt its boats with the men of violence and the only way to go is forward.
Sinn Fein is part of the political class. It must now start supporting the police with practical intelligence to prevent the emergence of a new IRA from the ashes of the old.