Crucial paramilitaries report must stand up to scrutiny
The forthcoming joint PSNI-MI5 assessment of the status of republican and loyalist paramilitary groups has the potential to ease the Stormont talks process... or derail it altogether. Brian Rowan reports
It was one of those moments when you sit up and pay attention. A week or so after the killing of Kevin McGuigan in the Short Strand the police gave their first detailed assessment. It was delivered in the words of Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes and his lines had been cleared by the PSNI top tier, including Chief Constable George Hamilton.
The date was August 20 and this policing assessment played into the political crisis at Stormont.
"I have to deal with hard information, intelligence and facts," Geddes said. "A main line of enquiry in this investigation is that Kevin McGuigan was murdered by individuals seeking revenge for the murder of Jock Davison in May."
Davison was once one of the most-senior IRA figures in Belfast and the police assessment is that the McGuigan murder was a reprisal.
So, who was behind this killing? The detective superintendent described it this way: that a group calling itself Action Against Drugs was "closely involved", but was not acting alone.
According to Geddes, members of the Provisional IRA were also involved. And this was the line that turned crisis into a political earthquake, and for this reason. If members of the IRA were involved then, a decade after declaring the armed campaign over and putting arms beyond use, there was still an IRA. Within an hour of that Geddes news conference, the police assessment was explained to me in these terms:
- The McGuigan murder was a "joint enterprise" involving current members of the Provisional IRA and Action Against Drugs.
- Members of the Provisional IRA carried out their own investigation into the Davison killing.
- Police had "no intelligence or evidence" to link Kevin McGuigan to the Davison murder.
- More arrests were expected.
- While police believed there was still an IRA structure, they also believed it was for "a fundamentally different purpose". The context now was managing the peace process.
I asked for the words "joint enterprise" to be explained: "Two factions coming together to assist each other in a common goal" was the response.
In his news conference, Geddes was not asked for a police assessment of the IRA ceasefire, but he had a briefing line to address that possible question: "The decision on re-specification is a political decision for the Secretary of State. Ceasefires are not a matter for police. They are for politicians to determine.
"The Chief Constable will be advising the Secretary of State and the Minister of Justice about the investigation."
"Re-specification" is a technical terms that would mean the IRA ceasefire was no longer recognised. There is no suggestion this is going to happen.
But what is going to happen is a detailed examination of that police assessment - explained first by Geddes, and then a few days later by Chief Constable George Hamilton and ACC Will Kerr.
On an IRA structure, Hamilton said: "We assess that in the organisational sense the Provisional IRA does not exist for paramilitary purposes. Nevertheless, we assess that, in common with the majority of Northern Ireland paramilitary groups from the period of the conflict, some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place, although its purpose has radically changed since this period.
"Our assessment indicates that a primary focus of the Provisional IRA is now promoting a peaceful, political republican agenda."
On the specifics of the McGuigan murder investigation, Hamilton did not use the words "joint enterprise".
But he said: "The SIO (senior investigating officer) is appropriately following a line of enquiry that has shown connections and co-operation between Action Against Drugs as a group and a number of individuals who are members of the Provisional IRA."
Could Hamilton's use of the words "connections and co-operation" be translated into "joint enterprise"?
It seems a reasonable interpretation; a different use of words, but with the same meaning.
But what will others make of that police assessment, both of the McGuigan murder and that analysis of what remains of an IRA structure?
We will find out very soon. The assessment meant things moved from crisis to the near collapse of the political institutions at Stormont.
And, as part of a rescue package, Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has commissioned a factual assessment from the UK security agencies and the PSNI on the structure, role and purpose of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland.
That assessment takes things into a wider frame.
It is not just about the McGuigan murder and an IRA leadership structure, but a more detailed analysis that will also look at the loyalist organisations and the dissident republican threat.
A report that will be co-authored by MI5 and the PSNI will then be reviewed and checked by a three-person panel appointed last week. They are Lord Carlile, Stephen Shaw QC and former senior civil servant Rosalie Flanagan.
That report and review will then play into the negotiations at Stormont.
But, for all of its wider context, there will be a particular focus on those most recent assessments. What exactly is the remaining IRA structure?
The police believe a leadership still exists at "brigade level and up". Does "up" mean to the Army Council? If so, what is its purpose and membership in 2015?
On the McGuigan murder, if current IRA members were involved, why would they need those connections and and co-operation with a group such as Action Against Drugs?
If it happened, was it to muddy the intelligence waters; to complicate and confuse things, or is there some other explanation?
Will the assessment stand up to scrutiny?
Who killed 'Jock' Davison, whose purpose did it serve and was that shooting deliberately designed to draw a response from his one-time IRA associates?
What does current membership of an organisation that ended its armed campaign a decade ago mean? The fine detail is important.
How are the arrests explained, including Sean Kelly and Bobby Storey? Kelly's name will forever be associated with the slaughter of the IRA bomb on the Shankill Road in 1993.
In the conflict period, Storey was one of the most senior and influential IRA leaders. He is now northern chair of Sinn Fein. Both he and Kelly were released unconditionally.
There is this huge gap between the police assessment and what republicans are saying.
In the course of this crisis, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have repeated many times that the IRA has gone and that the Davison and McGuigan murders were carried out by criminals.
So, we wait for this next and more detailed assessment.
There is no sense that the police are worried or intimidated by this move to have their intelligence homework marked. "I would imagine any variance will be around the edges," one source commented.
Could a police/MI5 assessment of an IRA leadership in a peacetime context be made to fit with the Adams and McGuinness commentary that the IRA has gone?
In other words, could both mean there is no national security, or "war", threat?
And if the McGuigan killing was not organisationally sanctioned, does that begin to calm the political storm?
It depends how much more the police know, and how much intelligence is made available to the latest report and review.
Can two scripts be made to fit? Or could there be more damage in the detail?
We have been down this road before. In 1999, after an IRA killing and arms importation, then Secretary of State Mo Mowlan concluded that the IRA ceasefire had not broken down and was not disintegrating.
We can never be certain about the interpretation a politician or politicians will place on any security report.
Liam Clarke returns next week