By Annie O’Keeffe
The 5 May UK election, which will return 17 Northern Ireland MPs to Westminster, will establish just what impact the months-long campaign by London and Dublin politicians and the media they influence has had on the standing of Sinn Fein with Northern Ireland’s nationalist electorate.
>The 5 May election will in Northern Ireland be not one but two more or less entirely separate elections, one among nationalists in which Sinn Fein will compete with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and one among unionists in which Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will compete with David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams’ 6 April public call on the IRA to end violence and devote itself entirely to politics is best understood as an attempt by distancing Sinn Fein from the IRA to lessen the electoral impact on it of hostility to the IRA.
That it is that, an electoral gambit, is certain; whether it is only that, a “cynical con-trick”, is much less certain.
Adams said to the IRA: “Your determination, selflessness and courage have brought the freedom struggle towards its fulfilment [he means a united Ireland].”
But now it is no longer necessary: “Now there is an alternative… the way forward is by building political support for republican and democratic objectives across Ireland by winning support for these goals internationally… The only way forward is by peaceful and democratic means.”
In Republican terms that means abandoning the “twin-track” strategy of the last quarter century — the ballot in one had and an armalite rifle in the other — to go exclusively political.
The only thing new here is the strange form of it. A public call is made to the IRA by a man known to be the most important member of the IRA’s Army Council, standing beside Martin McGuinness, another important Army Council member, in a group that included Pat Doherty and Gerry Kelly, who are or were Army Council members!
The farcicality of IRA members calling on themselves to do something, and then saying they await “a reply” is not new; and it does not necessarily mean that Adams’ speech was only a bit of low comedy designed to help Sinn Fein in the election.
Only last December, the IRA proclaimed its willingness to disband, as part of a comprehensive power-sharing deal with Ian Paisley’s DUP. Adams’ call on the IRA has no timeframe to it; he has said he does not expect a response before 5 May. He should know!
It is a call to nationalist electors to vote Sinn Fein now and trust the IRA to disband in its own good time.
London and Dublin insist that the disbandment of the IRA is an prior condition for a Sinn Fein return to powersharing government in Belfast. Sinn Fein will not be allowed to hold government office so long as the IRA exists.
The “international” — primarily American — “credit” which disbanding the IRA would bring to the IRA in politics, to Adams and Sinn Fein, is a strong pressure on the IRA to disband.
Against that, there is the probability that if the IRA goes out of existence, some sort of “dissident” IRA, seriously bigger than the two IRA splinters that exist now, the Real IRA and Continuity IRA, will result.
Sinn Fein doing well on 5 May would perhaps increase the pressure on the IRA to stand down — “for now” — in favour of an exclusively political endeavour to win a united Ireland. Will it do well? Opinion polls show that Sinn Fein’s bedrock support has not been eroded by the campaign against them. But it is the less-than-bedrock support that will determine how they do in most seats.
Thus Adams’ “call” on the IRA to become exclusively “political” and democratic.
Sinn Fein is countering the campaign of the McCartney family for justice by accusing them of being financed and politically manipulated by the SDLP and others. No one has been arrested for McCartney’s killing.
The story is that the rank and file IRA men involved in the killing refuse to let themselves be branded as drunken thugs rather than Republican volunteers, and are insisting that the fact that they acted under the order of their IRA officer commanding must be acknowledged before they will accept legal responsibility for their action in killing Robert McCartney and savagely wounding his friend.