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Stormont crisis: PSNI gaffes allowed republicans to play the persecuted


George Hamilton

George Hamilton

Kevin Scott / Presseye

George Hamilton

When George Hamilton looked around the room inside St Mary's College on Belfast's Falls Road during the August West Belfast Festival, he would have spotted a few familiar faces.

Aside from Martin McGuinness whom the Chief Constable was sharing a platform, down in the audience there would have been a number of characters he saw before - possibly during intelligence briefings when he was in the RUC.

There was Bobby Storey, ex-IRA and named in Parliament as director of the movement's intelligence department, and now Sinn Fein's northern chairman.

Also among the throng listening to a debate on the legacy of the Troubles past was Sean "Spike" Murray, another west Belfast IRA figure, strong supporter like Storey of the peace process and currently named in court papers in connection with the Provisionals' gun-running operation in Florida back in 1999.

Just over a week later, another less well-known IRA figure called Kevin McGuigan was shot dead in front of his wife at the gate of their home in the Short Strand district.

The two gunmen that carried out the execution-style killing were on a revenge mission as they sought blood over the death of Gerard 'Jock' Davison in May.

The latter's comrades, all Provisional IRA veterans, strongly believed McGuigan had murdered Davison - a charge he denied right up until his own death on August 13 and which his family continue to deny.

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Reflecting back on that night seven days earlier when it was all beams and smiles in St Mary's, you might wonder what George Hamilton must have been thinking when the news reached him that McGuigan had been murdered.

Did he ponder on the possibility that among the gathering of senior republicans in that room there was some with knowledge about plans to kill McGuigan?

Did the Chief Constable feel a sense of betrayal, embarrassment, anger that he had taken part in what was undoubtedly another ground-breaking moment in the peace process only for some of those same peace process republicans to give a nod to paramilitary murder?

You have to have some sympathy for Hamilton's position once the McGuigan murder happened and the pressure he must have been under in the week afterwards to make clear who his force thought was responsible for it.

Although few observers of republicanism believed his assessment in that seminal Saturday Press conference at PSNI HQ that the IRA leadership did not sanction the killing, Hamilton at least didn't shy away from stating that individual Provisionals carried it out.

His line on that certainly scuppered some of the silly and the sinister suggestions in tabloid coverage of the McGuigan murder that it was ordinary criminals who killed the former assassin in such a cold, clinical and professional manner.

The Chief Constable behaved in a professional (and of course infinitely more benign) manner when he stood by his assertion that PIRA individual activists had been behind the murder in Comber Court.

He cannot be faulted at least for that.

However, the PSNI's next move in the McGuigan controversy and the political fall-out from it is open to question.

This week the PSNI arrested three leading Belfast republicans including none other than Bobby Storey as part of the police investigation into the McGuigan killing.

Storey, Brian Gillen and Eddie Copeland were all later released on the very day that Peter Robinson was supposed to have brought Stormont crashing down but instead stepped back from the 'Samson option'.

The PSNI will of course say that normal policing has to be independent of political developments and that police inquiries should not be coloured by such considerations.

Yet it is fair to ask exactly what was the purpose of lifting Storey, Gillen and Copeland if they had no evidence linking them in any way at all to the murder?

If there was no case to build then the arrests will create the impression in an already sceptical and weary public that the detentions were merely 'for the optics', to give the appearance of something - anything - being done.

Without any charges and little or no prospect of them in the near future, Storey's lawyer Michael Finucane has already warned that the veteran republican and close ally of Gerry Adams is prepared to sue the PSNI.

The martyrdom role has been reversed too, with republicans able to present themselves as victims.

In May 2014, it was Bobby Storey railing against the Brits, the cops, the unionists and all their other enemies when his chief, President Adams, was arrested over the Jean McConville disappearance and murder in 1972.

Nearly 17 months later, it was Adams speaking up for his lieutenant who was now in PSNI custody.

Timing is everything and the PSNI's was lousy these past few days.

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