In the seemingly endless debate about whether or not the Provisional IRA still exists and whether or not it controls Sinn Fein – questions that loom like Banquo’s ghost over negotiations about the formation of a new government in Dublin – little attention has been paid to a PSNI assessment made as recently as last November that the IRA did at that time exist and that it controlled Sinn Fein.
This begs the obvious question: if that was the status of the IRA/Sinn Fein partnership less than four months ago, did anything happen to alter it?
Asked about this this on Thursday at a committee hearing at Stormont, the current Chief Constable of the PSNI, Simon Byrne, kicked for touch and referred Assembly Members to the new Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office (i.e. MI5) for an answer.
However a PSNI spokesman, asked by the Belfast daily, the News Letter about the status of last November’s assessment of the IRA and its ‘oversight’ of Sinn Fein, said there had been ‘no change’.
That led the News Letter to publish the following article in yesterday’s edition, which is recommended reading for followers of thebrokenelbow.com. Politicians involved in talks with SF in Dublin about the new government might consider giving it more than a passing glance:
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has come under fire after declining to answer questions from the Stormont Justice Committee about the status of the Provisional IRA.
PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne appeared before Stormont’s justice committee
Quizzed on the matter yesterday, Mr Byrne directed questions around an assessment of the Provisional IRA to the secretary of state and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).
Mr Byrne replied: “The status of the Provisional IRA is not for me to comment on.”
The Northern Ireland Office has been asked to comment.
Mr Byrne’s comments have drawn attention in light of a statement from the PSNI to the News Letter in November which affirmed the continuing role of the Provisional IRA.
“With regards to PIRA, there has been no change since the Paramilitary Assessment in 2015,” the PSNI told the News Letter in November.
The government report, published in 2015 and based in part on PSNI assessments, concluded that the second largest political party in both Northern Ireland and – now the Republic of Ireland also – continues to be overseen by the deadliest terror group of the Troubles, which although much reduced in scale and “committed to the peace process”, still has “specific” departments and “regional command structures”, gathers intelligence, retains weapons and has been involved in “isolated incidents of violence, including murders”.
Jim Gamble, former head of PSNI Special Branch in Belfast, said Mr Byrne had “got caught between a rock and a hard place”.“He has come into the role and is doing the best he can. But unlike [previous Chief Constable] George Hamilton, who had grown up with the RUC and PSNI and who had a deep understanding of the nuances here, Simon is only beginning to go through that particular learning curve.
“There is absolutely no doubt that the volume on IRA historic and contemporary links to politics has been turned right down, because they are not the same as other terrorist organisations; None can compete with the fact that Sinn Fein is inextricably linked to the IRA, and given the Good Friday Agreement and the work towards peace, then of course no other organisations would have the influence over the direction of policy within a political organisation that the IRA Army Council has [with Sinn Fein].”
TUV leader Jim Allister took issue with the Chief Constable’s reaction to questions yesterday.
“The Chief Constable’s comments to the Justice Committee about the status of the PIRA being a matter for the Secretary of State reminds Northern Ireland that there are double standards when it comes to criminality and terrorism in Northern Ireland,” he said. “Let’s not forget that the PIRA remain the most deadly murder group in Western Europe – something to which the graveyards of our Province bare chilling testimony.Ken Funston, SEFF’s Advocacy Services Manager said it was “precisely the Chief Constable’s role” to respond to MLAs’ questions.
“He is a civil servant who must be accountable to those who are in positions of governance in this land,” he said. “He deliberately avoided the question rather than having to give an answer that others might have an issue with. If he had been asked a similar question on the status of republican dissidents or loyalists, there is little doubt that he would have answered the question. His failure to do suggests that he is allowing politics to interfere in the discharge of his role responsibilities”.
Asked to address the apparent discrepancy between the November statement and the Chief Constable’s comments yesterday, the PSNI gave a short comment and a link to the 2015 report.
“The assessment commissioned in 2015 by the then Secretary of State on Paramilitary Groups in Northern Ireland has not changed,” a PSNI spokeswoman said.
In November the editor of a leading NI blog said that it was “extraordinary” how little attention was given to the PSNI revelation that the IRA Army Council still oversees Sinn Fein strategy.
Slugger O’Toole Editor Mick Fealty told the News Letter: “We have accommodated ourselves to profoundly undemocratic norms. And one of the ways this shows itself is a general unwillingness to subject certain groups to the norms of accountability… And the idea that some people can be excused from that accountability on the basis that it is too political to subject them to accountability is a perfect example of that departure from democratic norms.”
Last week the News Letter reported that Provisional IRA members were linked to 26 murders since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Although it is not possible to give exact figures, an examination by the Irish Independent in 2005 carried a detailed profile of 39 individual murders it said had been committed by members of the IRA from its 1994 ceasefire up until 2005. If accurate this would now equate to 26 murders since the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998.
A common theme, the Irish Independent found, was of individuals who had challenged IRA members in their own communities and paid a fatal price. In 2018 academic and NI Policing Board member Paul Nolan found that 38 catholic civilians had been killed by non-specified republican organisations since the GFA – a figure of similar proportions to the Independent’s.
Overall, Mr Nolan said republicans had taken 74 lives and loyalists 71 since the GFA.
* Thesaurus.com lists these as synonyms for ‘oversee’: