MICHAEL CLIFFORD: For Shinners, the past is not over or past

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness with party members at Stormont in Belfast. Picture: PA

The biggest question is, is Sinn Féin fit for government in the Republic? asks Michael Clifford

THERE was good news about Sinn Féin this week. The party is on the right track. An assessment by the British government of paramilitary activity in the North concluded that the party’s armed wing is no longer engaged in political violence.

At this rate, Sinn Féin will eventually come to resemble all other political parties in structure, focus and operation. Unfortunately, a reading of the assessment leads to the conclusion that that time has not yet arrived.

The biggest question arising from the publication of the assessment — and another assessment by An Garda Síochána — is whether or not Sinn Féin is fit for government in the Republic. Last week’s reports should be carefully studied by all who seek votes in this jurisdiction. For they portray an organisation that retains something of the night in how it operates.

Firstly, let’s acknowledge an uncomfortable truth. There are major differences between the Republic and the North in terms of democratic evolution. The former, notwithstanding its many flaws which were particularly exposed during the recent recession, is a relatively robust democracy.

The North is at a much earlier stage of evolution. It remains in a post-conflict phase, where the tool of “constructive ambiguity” is deployed to motor the ship of state towards calmer waters. Hence blind eyes are turned to activities and the personal records of individuals which would attract sanction or political cost in other jurisdictions.

Look at that which prompted the British government review — the murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast last August. The PSNI, and now the review, have concluded that IRA elements were involved. The official narrative of the circumstances around the killing chimes with that of credible nationalist commentators like Brian Feeney. It is agreed by all outside Sinn Féin that these elements of the IRA have close connections to the party hierarchy. Despite various unionist entities throwing a few strops, that situation is now being brushed aside in the name of keeping the Stormont show on the road. Such is the price of living in a post-conflict environment.

Would the same thing be tolerated down here? If a murder like that of McGuigan was committed, say in a disadvantaged enclave in Dublin or Cork, while Sinn Féin was in government, would it be acceptable to a large, or even small, chunk of the population?

Another concern arises over the funding of Sinn Féin. The assessment concludes that members of paramilitary groups like the IRA are “involved in serious criminal activity… This includes large-scale smuggling operations, fuel laundering, drug dealing and extortion of local businesses”.

In recent years, in this jurisdiction and others, Republican figures have been arrested for serious crime, such as smuggling and money laundering. If guilt is established in any of these cases, are we to take it that these individuals have forsaken the politics that drove them to the extremes of sanctioning or partaking in the campaign of violence? The alternative is that these individuals retain fidelity to the aims of the Republican movement and do their bit by contributing financially from criminal gains.

Micheál Martin touched on this in the Dáil on Wednesday. “Are people absolutely certain that any of the proceeds from the organised crime that’s been going on by alleged individual Provo republicans is not finding its way into the political project,” he said.

Mr Martin went on to reference three individuals prosecuted in 2010 for handling proceeds of the Northern Bank robbery. All had close connections to the party. Anytime this thesis is aired it elicits high indignation from the Sinn Féin politicians. On Wednesday, the party’s Padraig McLoughlin repeatedly called the Fianna Fáil leader “a gurrier” for raising the issue.

Yet, the same Sinn Féin politicians manage with a straight face to say that they believe Gerry Adams when he claims never to have been in the IRA. Apart from anything else, this stance ensures that Mr Adams, as party president, is insulated from responsibility for a whole range of political issues that have lingered beyond the worst years of the violence. The most recent of these that blew up last year was the IRA’s stated policy of relocating favoured paedophiles to the Republic. If Mr Adams was a leading member, then he would have to answer for that, in the same way his colleagues have called on the Catholic hierarchy to be answerable for a similar policy.

Sinn Féin politicians’ blind acceptance of everything Mr Adams says — at least in public — shatters any credibility they might have on the subject of the IRA and its works, and lays low the high indignation. It is quite likely that the younger “clean hands” Shinners are unaware of the source of the considerable funds available to the party. This raises the issue of where exactly the real power lies.

Last week’s assessment concludes: “PIRA members believe that the PAC (Provisional Army Council) oversees both PIRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy. We judge this strategy has a wholly political focus.”

So is Sinn Féin like other parties in which the elected representatives are at the frontline of the power structure? One small but significant vignette may illustrate how things really work. Last November, the party hit a serious controversy with the emergence of revelations by Máiría Cahill about sexual abuse and kangaroo courts. Gerry Adams came under ferocious pressure in the South, where reaction was far worse than in the North. For a few days, it was speculated that the young “clean hands” politicians in the South were decidedly uncomfortable in defending how the Republican movement had dealt with a woman who had been abused by a senior member.

On the Saturday after the story broke, Adams made a major speech, dismissing critics as cynical and opportunistic and asserting his and his party’s integrity. It wasn’t what he said that was important, but where he said it.

Despite this being primarily an issue here in the Republic, the TD for Co Louth retreated to West Belfast to make his stand. This in an environment where symbolism takes on an exaggerated significance. Just in case any of the shiny new faces were getting notions, this was a message that it was from here, rather than the representatives in the South, that Adams drew his power, and has drawn it for the last 32 years of his presidency.

Sinn Féin could yet make a serious contribution to governance in this State. The party has had an excellent recession, attracting both members committed to social change, and large swathes of voters. But this week’s reports are the latest evidence that for Sinn Féin the past certainly isn’t over. With apologies to William Faulkner, it isn’t even past.


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