They haven’t gone away, you know — it’s the same old story up North

THERE can scarcely be a more overworked cliché about the North than Churchill’s words during the House of Commons debate in 1922 on the Irish Free State Bill.

Actually, quoted in full, they have a wonderful poetry about them and seem particularly appropriate at times like this: “Then came the Great War: every institution, almost, in the world was strained. Great Empires have been overturned. The whole map of Europe has been changed. The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous changes in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short, we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that has been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

Churchill’s message was the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Now, almost 90 years on, as the world is being simultaneously wowed by Chinese sophistication and appalled by Russian aggression, the North once more seems destined to shuffle its way back to the top of Brian Cowen and Gordon Brown’s in-trays. As if the two premiers didn’t have enough to worry about with the dark clouds of recession rolling in from the west. Wasn’t the North sorted long ago? Yesterday’s news? It seems not.

Last weekend’s Irish edition of The Sunday Times had gloomy news for all those who imagined the last movement in the vast Northern cycle had been written. In a sense it wasn’t news at all: we all know the IRA army council still remains intact. More worrying if the peace process is to be completed once and for all was the assessment by the PSNI’s most senior intelligence analyst, Peter Sheridan, that the IRA is unlikely formally to disband in the foreseeable future.

His warning comes just after a request from the British and Irish governments that the Independent Monitoring Commission, the distinguished body that decides these things, make a statement by September 1 as to the IRA’s current state.

Some will say the PSNI has its own agenda, but there seems no reason to argue with Sheridan’s commonsensical view, namely that the army council might not be replacing those who die or resign from it but still remains in existence. If things are left to ‘natural wastage’, this malign force in Irish politics could be with us for many more years to come. For as long as it is, unionists will perceive the republican movement is taking an each-way bet on the democratic process.

The Sunday Times also quoted what it called “a senior source in Garda intelligence” as saying the IRA had recruited in recent years, still held arms despite apparently decommissioning the lot, and was being maintained in “shadow form”.

In other words, reading between the lines sceptically, it is still capable of attacks in the future. In fairness, the PSNI doesn’t share that bleak view. Peter Sheridan doesn’t believe the mainstream IRA is a security threat any longer (unlike the dissidents, he might have added).

Such assessments are not what the DUP wants to hear. They insist the IRA must wind up once and for all before policing and justice powers can be transferred from the Northern Ireland Office to the Stormont Assembly.

At one time, it rather suited the DUP that the IRA hadn’t gone away: it put off ‘the evil day’. More recently, however, there has been a genuine desire to face these issues, to get them out of the way if at all possible before next year’s European elections.

That strategy is now in jeopardy and the party knows it isn’t in a position to fudge: “We will not be content until every vestige of IRA structures has gone,” says Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP security spokesman.

The DUP still doesn’t have a candidate for those elections. There are still almost certainly two unionist seats in Strasbourg to the nationalists’ (Sinn Féin’s) one.

But the party’s standard-bearer last time, Jim Allister — who actually notched up more votes than Dr Paisley on his last outing — cried foul when the DUP went into government with Sinn Féin and has been a blackthorn in the DUP’s side ever since.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the unionist spectrum, UUP veteran Jim Nicholson is running once again. He won’t have been harmed by talk of an alliance with David Cameron’s Conservatives who will almost certainly be the largest single delegation in the European Parliament next time.

The DUP could find themselves a bit squeezed: a deal that can be unpicked would play into Allister’s hands. At the same time, two unionists fighting for hardline votes would allow Nicholson to slip in again with the votes of the quiet people who fear everything might unravel. ‘What we have, we hold’ is an ancient unionist slogan and a lot of voters think there is enough economic uncertainty without a deadlocked Assembly queering the investment pitch even further.

It could all boil down to an issue that has bedevilled the peace process on and off for more than a decade — IRA recruitment. Back in June 1998, in Tony Blair’s final pitch for the Good Friday Agreement on the morning of the referendum, he promised the people of Northern Ireland that Sinn Féin could not be in government unless the IRA ended recruitment.

But around 2001 the British government dropped this demand, essentially hoping no-one would notice. Instead it focused on other, easier issues such as the importation of arms.

But, as the DUP (and Jim Allister, in particular) know, this is a significant matter. Because if the IRA, though not disbanded, is just an old boys’ club, why would it need to go on recruiting young fellows?

CONVERSELY, even if not consigned to history altogether, an army that ceases to recruit is very far from battle-ready. Having fallen off London’s agenda, it was no surprise that when the IRA statement of future intent finally came in 2005, by way of a taped message from one of the ‘volunteers’, it was silent on this matter. That statement was enough for London: it could be reasonably confident it wouldn’t have to fight al-Qaeda and the IRA at once.

But in the North, things were more complex. Many unionists had long felt, post-9/11, that the IRA’s traditional armed campaign was over. But the concern, shared in Leinster House, was that in such circumstances taking Sinn Féin into a government with powers over the police opened the way to a Mafia state.

Now that Sinn Féin, it seems, is content for the new ‘Ministry of Justice’ to be held by another party, that danger seems more remote. Unfortunately, though, Alliance, the small cross-community party in line to take the job, are not playing ball — for now, at least (London, with all its powers of patronage, will still hope it can bring some influence to bear).

But as things stand, the DUP’s hopes of a quick fix in the autumn are rapidly receding. The Taoiseach can expect some hard sledging this winter.

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