Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Republicans have waited for this moment since 1916. It's not a bluff

Martin McGuinness's suggestion that the Stormont institutions could collapse if a date isn't set very soon for the devolution of policing and justice has struck many - including supporters of Sinn Fein - as out of proportion to the issue involved.

The Assembly and Executive have survived, if uneasily, for more than two years since the putative deal on devolution of the powers - more exactly, agreement on the necessity of a deal - was struck at St Andrews, presaging the reformation of the institutions in May 2007. Why couldn't it continue to operate while negotiations continued, however unnecessarily prolonged by a grudging DUP?

After all, the DUP has a point when it insists that, whatever the expectations of other parties and the two governments, it didn't commit itself to devolution of the powers by any particular date, certainly not by May last year.

In the Commons a month after St Andrews, in October 2006, Peter Hain spelt it out: "The St Andrews agreement also included a clear commitment, and a target of May 2008, for the devolution of policing and justice powers to the restored Executive."

The commitment to devolution of powers, then, was clear and time-specific, the date for delivery merely a target. Whatever the level of anger at the DUP's dogged prevarication, Peter Robinson is strictly within his rights.

Why, then, the talk of meltdown and collapse?

The key to understanding the republicans' difficulty has primarily to do not with a generalised impatience to copper-fasten the institutions, but with the movement's core ideology. Sinn Fein is not generating a crisis. The crisis for the party is real, and arises from the basis on which the IRA took the series of steps which eventually led to disbandment.

PIRA effectively abandoned armed struggle when it declared in July 2005 that it would henceforth use "exclusively peaceful means". This cleared the way for the long road to St Andrews.

Thus the Assembly was able to meet on May 8, 2007 and elect a First Minister and deputy First Minister. Just four days later, the Sinn Fein Ard Chomhairle confirmed the party's support for the PSNI by nominating three MLAs to the Policing Board.

In October last year, the target having already been missed by a lengthening mile, the IRA played what it must have accepted as its last card and opted to go out of existence. The International Monitoring Commission reported that the armed struggle was "well and truly over". NIO Secretary Shaun Woodward declared without equivocation that "PIRA has met its commitment". Each step by the IRA had been greeted and analysed as designed to "move the process forward." This was true but missed the historical enormity of what the movement's leadership was delivering.

The IRA, as 'dissidents', and not only 'dissidents', regularly point out, had not fought its war to win power-sharing and an all-Ireland dimension. The war aim reflected a belief - held with dogmatic certainty - that the Republic had come in to existence on the steps of the GPO in Dublin at Easter 1916.

The war of independence, the civil war to thwart the emergence of the Free State and every phase of armed struggle since had been conducted in defence of the Republic as an actually-existing entity. Developments that others might have seen as major steps towards the achievement of the Republic were regarded by the IRA as shameful abandonment of the Republic - treasonous behavior.

In this context, the IRA army council was seen as the repository of the 1916 tradition and thereby the only legitimate political authority on the island, with a legal monopoly on the use of arms and the right to coercive authority.

Most commentators and historians regard all this as fantastical nonsense and assume that the IRA didn't really operate on the basis of such ridiculous notions. They are wrong.

Only a minority of the community in whose name the war was waged may have swallowed the ideology whole, but it provided the hard political spine of the movement and the basis in political morality for sending out volunteers to kill and risk death.

It is the notion which sustained the struggle at times when there was little in the surrounding circumstances to offer encouragement. It is why the IRA saw captured members as prisoners of war and why volunteers hungered to the death rather than accept any different designation.

It can be argued that even if devolution of policing and justice had been delivered by May 2008 and coercive power taken away from Britain and put into Irish hands, this couldn't reasonably be represented as vindication of the Republic.

But, although the feat must have required a breathtaking display of conceptual gymnastics, the IRA leadership managed - just - to persuade the membership. This is what makes the issue of huge significance and urgency for the Sinn Fein leadership now.

Having dismantled the constructs which had underpinned the IRA for almost a century, the movement in its now exclusively political manifestation finds that its partners in government treat this momentous change as of little account, requiring no practical acknowledgement.

If Peter Robinson doesn't deliver, and soon, Sinn Fein may well have no option but to walk away.

Martin McGuinness isn't bluffing.

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