I don’t know why or how but this story about new Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan refusing to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question of whether the IRA still exists and is active in Ireland, passed me by. I only became aware of it when I noticed Eoghan Harris’ article in today’s Sunday Indo.
My first thought on reading his piece was that Harris had one hell of a nerve complaining about the media ignoring the story of a political party seeking office in Ireland while continuing to operate an armed wing. As he put it:
“Why is the fact that the party well poised to take State power may be secretly controlled by an armed criminal conspiracy not seen as a major news story?”
My, my! Aren’t Irish memories conveniently short? It wasn’t so long ago that Mr Harris’ comrades in the Workers Party (WP) were doing exactly the same as Sinn Fein is doing now, lying about the existence of its armed wing as they sought office. And I don’t recall him complaining at the time.
In fact the Workers Party, with the armed Official IRA (OIRA) still intact and running brothels with the UVF in Belfast and building site rackets alongside the UDA, helped shore up Charlie Haughey’s second spell in government in 1982 when a deal was struck with the WP’s three TD’s. And the OIRA got involved in such dubious schemes with one main purpose: to raise money for the WP’s electoral efforts in the South – just as the Provisional IRA does for Sinn Fein.
And what about the media in those days? What did Irish journalism have to say about this sordid confection of political party and armed wing propping up an Irish government, or running brothels so that Prionsias de Rossa and his ilk could become TD’s? What did Eoghan Harris have to say about this deplorable state of affairs?
Well aside from one or two of us, myself and Vincent Browne in particular, my memory is that media behaved in exactly the same way as Mr Harris accuses it of behaving now when faced with a Sinn Fein that is being every bit as dishonest and devious about its armed wing. They turned a Nelson’s eye to the WP’s armed wing.
In fact it was worse than that. To write about the lie risked damaging your career – and even your health. I remember only too well the day I discovered that half an entire Northern Notebook had been censored by The Irish Times – removed in its entirety – because I dared write about the secret wing that Charlie Haughey’s new buddies were running. I learned about this only when I picked up the paper on that Saturday morning. The Irish Times had not even the courtesy – or was it courage? – to tell me.
The truth was that the Workers Party had infiltrated The Irish Times and much of the media – as well as semi-state bodies scattered throughout Ireland. The purpose was to bend them all in the direction of the WP’s ideology. And I don’t recall Mr Harris complaining about that!
Not only that but back in 1982 Harris ruled the news and current affairs section of RTE with an iron rod, inflicting a Stalinist-like purge of the station of any elements not considered reliable on the anti-Provo question, while advancing the careers of WP fellow travelers and imposing a WP analysis on the news stories of the day, especially those North of the Border.
When you think about it Harris is the last person in Ireland who should be lecturing the media about ethics or their refusal/reluctance to cover certain stories!
Manipulating the news and current affairs coverage of the national broadcaster to suit the ideology of a party of which you and many or your staff are secret members, is a far greater sin in my book. Irish journalism has still not recovered from the experience.
Those few journalists who did try to tell the truth about the WP were not only the target of venomous verbal attacks but came under physical threat as well.
I know that Browne was the subject of one very sinister threat while I learned from the UDA that two well known WP activists had tried to persuade the Loyalists that my job as Northern Editor of The Irish Times was really a front: I was actually an INLA intelligence officer. They wanted the UDA to kill me but thankfully the UDA knew me well enough to doubt the story and they checked it out.
(Incidentally I have always suspected that, via the same mechanism, the Official IRA/WP had a hand in assisting the UDA assassinations of Ronnie Bunting and Miriam Daly)
So when it comes to political parties seeking office while running an armed wing secretly in the background, the Sinn Fein/IRA nexus is not new and no-one knows that better than Eoghan Harris.
Nonetheless as it was then, so it is now a very legitimate question to ask. Organisations like the Provisional IRA and the Official IRA are, like their political fronts, essentially undemocratic and conspiratorial. The fear that should haunt most citizens is that once in power they will be reluctant to give it up. Elections are, in their minds, merely tactics by which power is achieved; they don’t really believe in them.
As for the continued existence of the Provisional IRA, the answer is obvious. Of course it still exists. There may not be the elaborate structures of old, the Northern and Southern Commands, the Brigades or the ASU’s but there is a skeleton organisation out there for sure.
I know for a fact that the IRA’s intelligence capability is still active, that a unit dedicated to collecting intel for the leadership, including presumably the SF leadership, exists.
We know the name of the man who heads it and the names of some of those who are active in it. And from the experience of colleagues and friends we know the sort of activity they have been engaged in. As the man said last May, ‘They haven’t gone away, you know!’ (Incidentally the strenuous efforts subsequently to remove his words from the internet are the equivalent of the bloody fingerprint left on the assassin’s knife)
An intelligence unit needs to be steered and directed, to get its marching orders and somewhere to deliver the actionable intelligence. The logic of the unit’s existence is the presence of a leadership, an Army Council for instance. And where there is a head, a body is never far away.
There is though an even more compelling reason to believe the IRA still exists and has a leadership, even if only in skeleton form. That is the IRA’s money.
Back before the Northern Bank robbery the Irish Department of Justice estimated the IRA’s property portfolio at the €400 million mark and intelligence estimates suggested the IRA had businesses and homes not just in both parts of Ireland but in Europe, especially Portugal, and in the US and the Caribbean.
This was not a new practice for the IRA. The most senior republican in the organisation has a house in West Belfast which was originally bought and owned by the IRA and was gifted to him in the mid-1970’s by the then head of IRA finance in Belfast, a veteran republican who recently died. The house was in that veteran’s name – it is now in the name of the senior republican’s wife – but it really still belongs to the IRA.
There is more than one elected Sinn Fein politician who now enjoy the delights of a holiday home in places like the Algarve, people who would never have the wherewithal to buy such property themselves. And again the villa or apartment may be in their name but just let them dare sell it!
Now while the DoJ estimate was calculated before the 2008 property crash it was also made before the Northern Bank raid swelled the coffers even more, so the chances are that one way or another the IRA still has a very healthy portfolio of businesses, holiday homes and the like.
And with the property market gradually recovering, the portfolio will grow, making money available for the political wing to spend on elections and to reassure internal skeptics that if the peace process does collapse the wherewithal exists to replenish all those decommissioned weapons stocks.
But this is a pile of wealth that can never be liquidated and distributed amongst the rank and file. It was amassed by and for the IRA and belongs to the IRA. No individual can claim it. As long as that money is there it must be owned and administered by an organisation and that organisation is called the IRA.