Northern Irish power-sharing institutions look close to collapse, following a crisis sparked by the murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan on 12 August in the Short Strand area of East Belfast.
McGuigan’s murder is widely seen as a revenge killing for the murder in May of Gerard “Jock” Davison, at one point one of the IRA’s most senior commanders in Belfast and allegedly responsible, along with McGuigan, for much of the IRA’s vigilante violence against drug dealers in the mid-to-late 1990s.
After the two men fell, an internal IRA disciplinary unit “sentenced” McGuigan to a “six-pack” — republican parlance for gunshot wounds to each of the elbows, kneecaps and ankles.
For years, McGuigan blamed Davison for the punishment shooting, and last May decided to get revenge. Davison was shot outside his home in the Markets area, near Belfast City Centre.
With a police investigation stalling, the IRA placed their own surveillance team on McGuigan and decided to avenge Davison’s death. McGuigan was ambushed by two men in dark clothing as he was walking with his wife, and killed in a volley of shots.
A number of factors explain why these killings have sparked such an intense political crisis at Stormont.
In a press conference following the McGuigan murder, Police Service of Northern Ireland chief George Hamilton made it clear that the police blamed individual members of the Provisional IRA for the murder.
He did not believe that the IRA leadership ordered the killing but did admit that “some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place, although its purpose has radically changed since this period.”
No one should have been surprised by the admission of the Provisional IRA’s continuing existence.
Indeed, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers commented afterwards that: “It didn’t come as a surprise to me… that a number of the organisational structures of the Provisional IRA still exist but that there is no evidence it’s involved in terrorism or paramilitary activity.”
Even though Sinn Fein say publicly that the IRA has “left the stage”, no movement of this type could have moved from armed struggle to politics without maintaining a military structure with sufficient authority to rein in “hardliners”.
Without this, the movement would have descended even more than it already has into a collection of local fiefdoms motivated by apolitical criminality or, worse, a continuation of sectarian warfare.
It is remarkable that there has not been more internecine republican violence during the Provisional’s transition to politics. The anti-Good Friday Agreement groups, though deadly, remain little more than an irritant.
In truth, the significance of the McGuigan murder lies ultimately in political rivalries within Unionism.
In the last decade, the IRA has been involved in two high-profile murders (those of Robert McCartney in 2005 and Paul Quinn in 2007), both a testament to its capacity for sheer gangsterism and violence. Both victims were thrown under the juggernaut of the “peace process” by republicans, Unionists and the British government, to ensure power-sharing between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
So what has changed? The Northern Ireland Executive has failed to deliver on any of the promises made to people about a “peace dividend”, instead locking itself in sectarian wrangles over parading, flags and other issues of identity, as well as attempting to implement Tory austerity.
This has largely sapped any enthusiasm that once existed for Stormont across both communities. Added to this is a reasonable fear among Nationalists that many Unionists continue to be hostile to power-sharing.
Sensing this, the smaller Unionist party, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), opportunistically seized the chance to reverse its political fortunes after a decade of marginalisation, and piled the pressure on the dominant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
With one eye on the 2016 elections it pulled its one minister out of the Northern Ireland Executive — a move highly popular with over 80% of Unionist voters.
Stunned, and after failing to suspend Stormont pending crisis talks, the DUP felt in turn reluctantly obliged to pull its ministers out of the Executive, effectively shutting down the working of the devolved government which has provided such material benefits to the party in the form of ministerial salaries, expenses and other privileges of office.
This clownish play-acting, which has always been implicit in the very structures of Stormont, risks the return of Tory direct rule, the implementation of savage welfare cuts and an intensification of sectarian tension.
A political system based on institutionalising sectarian identities within the existing boundaries of the six counties has become unable to provide adequate governance of any sort, let alone a space in which workers can elaborate a socialist politics capable of a democratic resolution to the national question.