Only ordinary voters can stop SF's fantasy peace process
Like Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, Sinn Fein has wheeled out Gerry Kelly to reassure people the IRA has gone away. Unless the public starts asking tough questions, the sideshow will continue.
You've got a problem - a body in the trunk of your car, say - so what do you do? You call up a "cleaner", such as the one played by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, whose job it is to tidy up the mess and make sure there's no inconvenient fallout from the deed. Job done. Crisis averted.
The same complication faced Sinn Fein in recent days. The Assistant Chief Constable let the cat out of the bag by admitting that IRA members were suspected of helping with, or carrying out, the murder of Kevin McGuigan in the Short Strand earlier this month. Awkward. Hadn't SF been trying to distance itself from the killing by collectively going to ground and taking a vow of silence?
So the call goes out to Gerry Kelly, SF's political equivalent of Harvey Keitel, and the Old Bailey bomber instantly takes charge, insisting with that robotic voice and icy stare of his that there's nothing to see, before leading in a SF delegation to a hastily arranged police briefing.
Sure enough the Chief Constable comes out soon after and assures the public that the IRA is no longer on a "war footing" and is "not involved in paramilitary activity", in a statement so filled with glass-half-full cliches that it could have been written by our old friend P O'Neill.
Thus the scene is politically cleaned and normal service can be resumed. Almost with a sigh of relief, the Dublin government's Justice Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, has now come out to say the IRA is no longer a terrorist organisation. Though if not, what is it? An old boys' club? A charity?
Her colleague, Minister for Defence Simon Coveney, likewise expressed concern at recent events while reiterating the cosy line that there is no IRA anymore, just naughty freelancers.
It's been this way from the start of the peace process. After each murder, there's a panicked scramble at the realisation that the IRA reserves the right to shoot those to whom it takes exception and expects no fuss to be made about it afterwards. Then some formula of words is found to brush the whole matter under the carpet. Currently we're in that phase of the game where government officials from Dublin meet their counterparts from London, and they issue a statement, and all continues as normal.
That's why SF is laughing in the Republic this week. While pretending to be annoyed at the police for acknowledging the IRA still exists, secretly they're delighted at the chorus of senior public figures insisting the Provos are no more than a casual network of peaceniks, with a few bad eggs letting the side down. That allows them to peddle the line that those who carry out these acts are not "real" republicans, because "real" republicans wouldn't do such things, even though "real" republicans have been doing far worse for decades. It's the same formula they used throughout the Troubles, not least after Enniskillen.
Meanwhile, those who carry out these apparently unofficial, non-approved acts are not disciplined or expelled or shunned, but are still regarded as valued members of the republican movement.
If they're not real republicans, why is SF always willing to lie to protect them? If there is no IRA, who are they covering up for? You don't do that for out-of-control mavericks. You do it for friends and comrades.
The number of people willing to challenge this convenient fiction shrinks with each passing year. Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin is one of the few. Speaking on Irish radio on Tuesday, he flatly refuted the Justice Minister's comments, saying: "The IRA does exist."
He also set himself against any effort to allow SF to adopt a form of words to wriggle off its responsibilities: "It's absolutely clear that there should be no tolerance, no equivocation in relation to any armed wing still in existence for whatever purpose". Martin called on the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to take an equally firm line on ongoing paramilitarism.
As a result, the FF leader has been pounced upon by SF supporters who accuse him of playing politics with the peace process. This is how they always try to shut up democratic criticism. It works too.
Martin deserves credit for standing firm, not only because there are many in his own party who'd rather he took a softer line with SF in case FF needs their support after the next election, but also because there's little political capital to be had from attacking SF on this issue. To the average southerner, the Short Strand feels as alien as Saturn.
Given that, the probable answer to the question of what consequences there will be for SF down south from all this is: very few.
In order for there to be consequences, there must be governments with the readiness to enforce consequences, and Dublin and London evidently consider the odd corpse a small price to pay for keeping the IRA inside the tent.
Hence the only people who can impose penalties on SF are Irish voters, when they get the chance, though how are they meant to make a rational judgment when fed on a constant diet of peace process fantasy?
It could be that the next raft of opinion polls will show some damage, but again probably not. The people who've decided they will vote for SF already have all the information they need about the party's skeletons, whether it's a continuing love affair with the gun or ambivalence about child abuse; as far as they're concerned, those issues are much less important than austerity and water charges.
Thankfully, baseline figures of support don't tell the whole story. The Irish Republic has a proportional representation system in which votes from eliminated candidates are transferred between remaining hopefuls. There is evidence from recent polls that supporters of mainstream parties are still reluctant to transfer votes to SF and are much more likely, despite long-standing rivalries, to pass votes to one another.
This lingering suspicion of SF's democratic credentials remains the party's Achilles' heel, and the more that there are principled public representatives such as Micheal Martin prepared to take the flak by raising the issue, the harder it will be for SF to persuade moderate voters to give them the benefit of the doubt.
These ordinary people are the ones holding the line against the IRA, and might well be the one thing standing in the way of republican ambitions to be in power on both halves of the island on the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising.
If not, power will go to people who know exactly who killed Kevin McGuigan, and why, but who'll never tell because the IRA won't let them.