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A brutal IRA murder that's left Stormont on the brink - try spinning your way out of this one, Gerry

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 28/08/2015

A DUP delegation, including (from left) William McCrea, Jeffrey Donaldson, Nigel Dodds
and Gregory Campbell, leave Stormont after a meeting with Theresa Villiers
A DUP delegation, including (from left) William McCrea, Jeffrey Donaldson, Nigel Dodds and Gregory Campbell, leave Stormont after a meeting with Theresa Villiers

I can't see Sinn Fein ever inviting me onto their communications team, or me wanting the job anyway.

Its people are generally agreed to be the best in the business, yet, if I had their ear and was of a mind to help, I would have urged them to handle the fallout from the murder of Kevin McGuigan rather differently.

On some of the essentials they have been sharp and deployed the tools that have worked for them before.

First, discredit the motives of your critics.

If someone says they are taking a principled stand against you, then accuse them of having no principles. Suggest an alternative motive for their behaviour and then hammer away at that, keep repeating it.

We saw this last year when Gerry Adams was arrested.

The line taken was that there were dark forces in the PSNI who, in collusion with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, were seeking to influence the outcome of European and council elections and to reverse the gains of the peace process.

Set aside the implausibility of a joint operation by two political parties in the south who are rivals, only someone utterly addicted to conspiracy theories would have come up with the idea that they had joined forces with anti-peace process securocrats in the north; but the idea was pushed loud and hard and people rallied round that message.

The alternative version of events was that there was indeed reasonable suspicion that Gerry Adams had been a leading member of the IRA, and who was going to believe a lie like that? Well, everybody else.

But it seems that the greater your commitment to Sinn Fein the less credence you will give to any such account of the Sinn Fein president's past republican career.

Then Gerry Adams came out of custody with no charges against him and the slur about "dark forces" was dropped. It had done its job, rallied supporters and deflected attention from his possible guilt.

But there will have been a few idiot editors in the US who will have believed it. Result!

The other trick is to fudge the issue. We have seen that throughout the peace process.

Sinn Fein never conceded that the IRA had ended its campaign. It always called the ceasefire a "cessation", so that people could read it whatever way suited them. If they wanted to believe the campaign was over, well and good. If they preferred to believe that the IRA retained the option of returning to armed struggle, well there was enough latitude in the wording to allow them to believe that too.

Then Prime Minister Tony Blair pleaded with Adams to make a declaration that the war was over, before President Clinton's visit. Adams and his team came up with: "The violence we have seen must be a thing of the past, over, done with and gone."

He was never going to say what others wanted him to say.

And maybe that cleverness, that gliceas, is just too eagerly resorted to when a bit of plain speaking would take him further.

The first reaction of Martin McGuinness to the police claim that Provisional IRA members had killed Kevin McGuigan was to brand the killers as criminals.

This was what would be expected of a responsible politician.

He did not challenge the honesty, integrity or competence of the PSNI, though just a year before he had claimed that dark forces within the police force had threatened the peace process.

Nothing in the initial response of Martin McGuinness sought to deny that the IRA had been involved in the killing. He said nothing to imply that he felt any responsibility to preserve the good name of the IRA in the face of the police statement.

His silence since may seem unfeeling and indifferent but at least he isn't saying things that others can latch onto and drag him down by.

The approach taken by Gerry Adams was different. He endorsed the view that the killing was a criminal act, as was the previous killing of Gerard Davison which this was presumed to relate to, as a revenge attack.

But he went further to argue that the IRA was emphatically not responsible, and that it had "left the stage".

He introduced difficulties into the argument which he could have left out of it. The first was taking it upon himself to defend the credibility of the IRA, despite his insistence that he was never a member.

He could have said simply that it was news to him that the IRA still existed and had armed members. As far as he understood, decommissioning had been completed a decade ago. He had discharged his responsibility to influence the IRA towards ending its campaign and he hoped that the police would do a good job and catch the killers and bring them to justice.

But he didn't. By going further than McGuinness he complicated the issue.

It would be better for him now to be fighting his corner on the ground - honest or not - that he is not responsible for the IRA, and can't accept his party being held accountable in perpetuity for what the IRA does, years after the political project has prevailed within republicanism.

His later statement tried to get him back onto to that ground but he had already associated himself with the 'good name of the IRA' in his early statement and provided unionists with an argument that he could have denied them.

Why did he go that way? Perhaps he has good reasons which he has not made clear. Perhaps he wants to avoid a clean break between Sinn Fein and the IRA. Perhaps, if he gave up all influence over them, further violence would be more likely. Perhaps Sinn Fein is still, nominally at least, under the formal control of the IRA, as it was for decades.

The other thing that Adams did was to deploy the old ambiguous language by which he managed the peace process. Instead of saying there is no IRA, he said they had "gone away" and "left the stage".

These were agreed diplomatic terms for fudging the issue, deliberately avoiding the plain lie that the IRA has disbanded.

If I have "left the stage" I may be backstage. If I have "gone away" I am only somewhere else. The important question is where I have gone away to.

Adams says: "I don't agree with the PSNI Chief Constable's claim that the IRA exists - even in the benign way he paints it. The war is over and the IRA is gone and is not coming back."

That's the closest he comes to suggesting that "gone away" really does mean "doesn't exist".

Pitching your credibility on the insistence that the IRA won't come back is risky, because there may be more evidence to emerge. You don't avert that risk by using ambiguous language. You'll still be just taken for a liar if you are proved to have been trying to mislead people.

And how would Gerry know that the IRA was emphatically off the scene, any more than I would, if he hadn't particular access to that knowledge? Politically it is not clever to be drawing attention to that connection at this time.

He says: "This problem is not of our making. Sinn Fein has no responsibility whatsoever for those who killed Kevin McGuigan or Jock Davison."

But then why can't he show a bit more contempt for those killers? More compassion for their victims? As most other people see it, the tragedy is that someone has been murdered, not that Sinn Fein's reputation is damaged.

Why does he always come out sounding as if he is more annoyed with unionists and his other critics than with people who commit murder?

If he had a deal with the IRA that it would disarm and wither away, and if there is some evidence that the IRA has not kept its side of that bargain, he should be bloody furious with them.

But if the deal wasn't quite that at all, but an understanding that the IRA would retain its structures and some weapons, so that it would be well placed to avenge any attack on its members, and perhaps on Sinn Fein leaders too, then that isn't one that was ever going to be sustainable.

One day the unionists were going to discover that decommissioning was a charade. And what if the situation is even worse and the old rule that the IRA directs Sinn Fein is still in place?

Adams' amazing achievement was to build a Sinn Fein movement that could effectively usurp the pre-eminence of the militarists in the republican movement - but maybe the militarists haven't grasped how thoroughly they have been eclipsed.

Of course, Adams isn't the only fudger in the field. He can reasonably argue that the unionists fudged too. Even going back to Trimble's day, there were murders that were not allowed to disrupt progress towards devolution.

The current breakdown is partly due to a refusal of unionists to go on playing the game of looking the other way.

The old tricks of questioning the motive of your critic and fudging the language in the claims you make no longer work on them.

It would be a weak party that would crumple under the charge that it was electioneering.

Imminent elections pull parties back to their principles. What's so wrong with that? And it takes two sides to go along with a fudge.

Adams says: "Enough is enough. Sinn Fein has no special, or particular or specific responsibility to respond to the allegations made about the IRA."

But he did respond. He responded with a claim that they have "gone away" and "left the stage". He took their part and tried to weave a fog of ambiguity around the reality of their continued existence. That reflexive defence of the IRA has let him down.

Worse, it has made him sound as if he is more concerned about the reputation of the IRA than about murder on the streets and the feelings of families of victims.

Yet it is hard to see where this current political deadlock can go. Another round of talking might seek to establish a clear and final divorce between Sinn Fein and the IRA.

That may not be the preferred outcome for unionists, but it may be all that they will get, if it is actually attainable. It hasn't been so far.

And if it could be attained, the cost of it would be a loss of influence over the IRA.

The reality which Adams and others baulk at laying out before us is that the IRA is tamer than it was because it is committed to the political route to a united Ireland. If the IRA ceases to respond to Sinn Fein's needs in the Assembly, as the UVF gave up on behaving itself for the sake of Dawn Purvis, then where will we be?

Will we be in a better place with an IRA that is beyond political reach? On the other hand, if the IRA got the same message now that it got after the killing of Paul Quinn in south Armagh in 2007, that no political consequences will follow, then it would feel more free to kill again.

We are in a double bind in which tightening the grip on the IRA might do as much damage as relaxing it. There was a comfort for everyone in pretending that there was no IRA. That comfort has gone.

If the police now arrest known republicans over this murder or on charges of IRA membership, past form suggests that Sinn Fein pickets will rally at the courthouse doors and accuse the PSNI again of political policing.

We'll hear again the old nonsense about dark forces and securocrats.

My advice to Sinn Fein would be that a few instances of republicans going meekly to jail without any protest from Sinn Fein would help the political climate considerably.

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