Why Sinn Fein’s apologies won’t wash in Republic
Gerry Adams may have said sorry for the IRA murder of Garda Jerry McCabe but his comments provoked derision in many quarters, says Henry McDonald
George Orwell, in his seminal 1940 essay Inside The Whale, noted that every time Stalin swapped partners or switched alliances the British Communist Party would have to hammer out a new line in contradiction to its previous one.
So, the CP shifted from demands for a Popular Front against fascism from 1936 to opposition to another ‘imperialist war' when Stalin signed his pact with Hitler three years later.
“The unquestionable dogma of Monday may become the damnable heresy of Tuesday, and so on,” Orwell noted.
When it comes to the politics of policing on this island it has taken Sinn Fein a little bit longer than 24 hours, or indeed the same time span between the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War to the Second World War, to engage in such intellectual gymnastics.
The base line from which you can plot their “unquestionable dogma” becoming “the damnable heresy” begins on the streets of Lurgan in the early summer of 1997 when the Provisional IRA shot dead two police officers on the beat just weeks before the organisation declared a second, decisive ceasefire.
Yet within the space of 15 years the party's position on police has moved from dogmatic support for PIRA's killing of RUC officers towards automatic condemnation of any attack, lethal or otherwise, on PSNI members. In turn dissident republican attacks on police officers are now “the damnable heresy” in Sinn Fein's eyes.
Such a journey was of course absolutely necessary as the mainstream republican movement edged slowly towards dumping “armed struggle” to fully embracing constitutional politics. Support for policing and the judicial system WITHIN Northern Ireland were the foundation stones on which the St Andrews Agreement was built.
The DUP would have found it next to impossible to share power (something they seem to now enjoy as much as Sinn Fein) unless mainstream republicans supported the police force. Such are the demands of practical politics.
During the Troubles, PIRA's internal guidelines, the Green Book, officially forbade its members from killing or wounding members of the security forces south of the border. None the less there were some notorious incidents where gardai and Irish soldiers lost their lives mainly after shoot-outs during armed robberies or kidnappings.
The last incident involving PIRA members shooting at Gardai was in Adare, Co Limerick in 1996 when a Provo unit killed Garda Jerry McCabe and seriously wounded colleague Ben O'Sullivan during a botched robbery.
This writer recalls vividly the reaction to the McCabe murder in the hours and days after the shooting particularly how some sections of the media swallowed a lie that the gang were in fact INLA members or ordinary criminals and how broadcasters (or at least certain editors and senior staff) attempted to thwart any report that in fact IRA personnel carried out the murder.
Even certain politicians in the south were accused by rank and file gardai of initially briefing the media against the PIRA connection to the killing which they feared was being done in the interests of the peace process.
Although no one was ever convicted of murdering Garda McCabe four men were found guilty of manslaughter.
And while the McCabe family, particularly his wife Anne, have always felt they never got full justice, the Adare shooting has cast a long shadow over the politics of crime and security ever since.
In the aftermath of another Garda shot dead during yet another botched bank robbery, this time in the Cooley Peninsula last month, Gerry Adams knew that the ghost of Garda McCabe would appear once more. Mindful that his denunciation of the killing of Garda Adrian Donohoe would conjure up memories of the McCabe murder, the Louth TD also used the Dail to finally apologise for the IRA killing in Adare 16 years earlier.
His apology, however, provoked derision from rival parties who pointed out that until the middle of the last decade Sinn Fein was petitioning the Irish government for the release of the four men serving manslaughter sentences over the McCabe killing.
Moreover, the likes of Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin challenged the Sinn Fein President to offer the gardai any assistance in locating the remaining members of the gang who carried out the unsanctioned killing of Garda McCabe.
One of the fugitives for example no longer lives in Ireland and is suspected of residing in Venezuela. In addition, the apology also raised awkward questions from opponents as to why Adams himself saw fit to say sorry for Garda McCabe given he continues to protest he was never in the IRA let alone being one of its long time commanders if the late Dolours Price or Brendan Hughes are to be believed.
One of the misconceptions about 21st century cross-border security policy is that prior to the PSNI's conception there was little or none.
In fact the opposite was the case. There was a regular hotline for instance between Monaghan Garda Station and the RUC's main station in Armagh.
The 20 senior Garda detectives deployed to the border had direct lines of communication and in many cases close personal relations with RUC officers including members of Special Branch.
The two police rank and file ‘unions' — the Garda Representative Association and the Police Federation — attended each other's conferences, socialised together and in the case of the former, its magazine contained numerous editorials denouncing IRA and other republican attacks on their northern colleagues.
The ‘Garda family’ today continues to be unambigious about the murder of nearly 400 RUC officers as it is about attacks on their own. The majority of the political classes in the Republic share the same position.
All of his raises further questions about the Troubles' legacy and the weight of the past bearing down on Sinn Fein when it comes to the policing issue.
Attempts by their spokesmen and women to differentiate between the murders of Garda Donohoe or Garda McCabe and pre-PSNI officers in the old RUC have been cack-handed, and politically damaging.
The row also illuminates a key problem for Sinn Fein, which has been doing very well of late in opinion polls, in trying to extend support into the middle class in ‘Middle Ireland', which is highly supportive of the gardai and strongly in favour of law and order.
‘There were incidents where gardai and soldiers lost their lives’