Republican top brass must win battle on policing
Published 13/11/2006 | 12:35
Security writer Brian Rowan assesses the Sinn Fein leadership death threat
It is a threat assessment that seems to be based on republican intelligence - not something that has come from the police.
The story began to emerge last night - a story of increased republican security around Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly - increased security because of a concern that there is a threat to their lives.
And what is the fear? That republican dissidents or disaffected members of the mainstream IRA could use the policing issue to target the Sinn Fein leadership.
But would they dare?
When the chief constable warned recently of an increased dissident threat, this is not what was on his mind.
We have seen the type of dissident activity Sir Hugh Orde was thinking and talking about - incendiary attacks on stores, a shoot-and-run attack on a police station, the bomb at the roadside that was abandoned when it failed to explode.
The Special Branch knows much about the dissident groups. They have their informers inside them - but there is no police information on this suggested threat to the most senior figures in the Sinn Fein leadership.
"We haven't served anything on them," a security source told the Belfast Telegraph, meaning the PSNI have not delivered any written warnings - something they must do if they have any information relating to any threat.
"This is a Sinn Fein assessment of the threat," the source continued.
That is what it seems to be - something that the republican radar has picked up, something that we are told is being treated "seriously".
Part of the telling of this story is that the British and Irish governments are aware of how serious the situation is.
They know because Sinn Fein has told them. There is no other information in the system on the suggested threat to the Adams-McGuinness-Kelly leadership.
But because there is no information, does that mean there is no threat? No it doesn't.
After revealing himself as a British Agent, Denis Donaldson clearly believed it was safe to live in Ireland. It was not. Someone decided to take his life. So, there is still a threat of some description out there.
Writing in this newspaper recently, I said that the policing issue within republicanism presented the dissidents with a last chance to raise a rallying flag of sorts.
This is the most difficult issue of all for republicans - the issue of support for and participation in policing.
It is so difficult because for the period of the "war" the police were the enemy.
Now, in the politics of the peace that Adams-McGuinness-Kelly leadership is being asked to create a situation in which Sinn Fein joins the various policing boards and young republicans join the PSNI.
"I think they are getting a rough ride," a security source observed.
I think he is right, and right too in his assessment that republicans will "lose" people on this issue. Indeed, already, there are suggestions of some resignations from the IRA.
But what does all of this add up to? It adds up to what we expected. A difficult debate within republicanism - on a bigger issue than ceasefires, and decommissioning and ending the armed campaign, and an issue that has been further complicated by the introduction of MI5 and national security.
Will republicans get through it? The simple answer is they have to. There is no way through to the political endpoint suggested in the St Andrews Agreement unless republicans first settle the policing question - settle it first in the negotiations that are continuing with the Government and then settle it within and across the republican movement.
We know this is going to be an issue for a special Sinn Fein ard fheis or party conference, but we don't yet know when that will happen.
My assessment hasn't changed. I believe the Adams-McGuinness-Kelly leadership will win the debate, but I have always said that they need to win it convincingly.
The margin of victory is what is important, because if it is achieved with significant support then that last rallying flag of the dissidents will fall.
I still believe the dissident "war" ended in Omagh. Yes, of course, they are capable of doing the things we have seen in recent days and weeks - burning stores, shooting at police stations and trying to get a bomb to explode, but for what purpose?
Unless the policing issue splits the republican movement, and unless the dissidents can produce a credible alternative leadership to Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly, then they are going nowhere.
And the Sinn Fein president won't allow policing to split the movement. That is why he is taking his time on this issue. It is why the special ard fheis has not yet been called. The leadership is still assessing the mood.
The most senior figures in the IRA are with the Sinn Fein leadership in this peace project. They may lose people, but they will not lose the debate or the vote when it comes.