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28th September 2015

Historical hangovers threaten Northern Ireland’s peace

Northern Ireland’s power sharing agreement has been rocked by allegations of paramilitary activity following the murders of two ex-IRA men

Over the past few months, Northern Ireland has seen increasing levels of political turmoil with the power sharing deal that was a product of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement coming under increasing strain. A recent upsurge in dissident republican activity, with the deaths of two former IRA hitmen being the most high profile, has brought about accusations from unionist politicians and others that the IRA is still active. This claim has been refuted by Sinn Féin, who maintain that the IRA does not exist anymore and is not orchestrating violence. The IRA ordered a formal halt to its armed campaign in 2005.

Disagreements have arisen in the fallout of the murders and have plunged Northern Ireland’s Stormont Assembly into crisis, with the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) First Minister Peter Robinson stepping down in protest against what the DUP claim is the prospect of the IRA still being active. This comes after deadlock in the Northern Ireland Assembly over the implementation of welfare reform that has been blocked by Sinn Féin, who are opposed to changes, despite initially approving them in March.

Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland secretary, had previously said that if a solution could not be found to the deadlock then the Westminster government was prepared to step in and suspend the Northern Ireland Assembly and rule from London as a “last resort.” This is something that the DUP isn’t entirely adverse to. With Northern Ireland Assembly elections to be held next year, a suspension now, with a view to restoring power sharing next year, could give the opportunity for a renegotiation of the power sharing agreement that would yield more favourable terms and to tar Sinn Féin with the dissident brush.

Since the start of the year there have been five bombs found in Northern Ireland. Of these, one exploded outside a probation office in April, and two partially exploded near an army reserve centre in Londonderry in May. This time the devices were placed close to residential houses.

These are not an immediate assessment of the IRA or the Provisional IRA; dissident republican action has continued in dribs and drabs since the end of the Troubles. However, the shootings of two ex-IRA hitmen in four months has called into question the continued existence of the Provisional IRA from unionist politicians. After the murder of Kevin McGuigan in August—who was one of the suspects in the murder of Gerard Jock Davison, a fellow ex-IRA man killed only three months earlier—First Minister Peter Robinson stepped aside after the police claimed that there may have been Provisional IRA involvement in McGuigan’s death.

Robinson remarked when stepping aside and leaving one DUP minister to remain First Minister that he was taking this action “to ensure that nationalists and republicans are not able to take financial and other decisions that might be detrimental to Northern Ireland.” However, Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams has said that the IRA has “gone and is not coming back.”

In addition to this, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), George Hamilton, said that the Provisional IRA still exists with respect to command structures and that some of its members were involved in the murder. However, Hamilton stated that there was no evidence of the murder being sanctioned by the group. He also added that the organisation’s purpose had “radically changed.” He stated that the police assessment was that the Provisional IRA remains committed to politics and is not engaged in violence. Instead he placed blame for the murders on a fall out within parts of the republican community involved in “personal gain or personal agendas.”

Now, there seems to be confusion over whether the IRA or any associated organisations are still in existence and functioning, or if the recent spate of violence is being committed by people who used to be involved in these organisations during the troubles, but are now settling personal scores.

Indeed, a look into Kevin McGuigan’s past shows that, having worked previously as a hitman with Gerard Jock Davison, the man he was suspected of the killing of months earlier, the murders may have more to do with personal rivalries than a revival of republican violence. These two men were part of a campaign group, Direct Action Against Drugs, an assassination unit consisting of ex-IRA members that would target alleged drug dealers in Northern Ireland who had fallen foul of the IRA.

A catalogue of violent incidents attributed to McGuigan in these years eventually came to a head when his volatile nature ended in a dispute that required the IRA’s internal discipline unit to be called in. McGuigan’s sentence was a “six-pack” which meant gunshot wounds to the feet, hands and elbows. It is alleged that after this incident McGuigan harbored a grudge against Davison. A former IRA prisoner turned author, Anthony McIntyre, who visited McGugian after the shooting, recalled that McGuigan felt Davison has “hijacked the army and punished him for reasons that were unfair—the result of favouritism and personalities.”

It would seem that the murders of these two men maybe have more to do with organised crime, a shared legacy of violence, suspicion and vying for dominance in quasi-political and paramilitary organisations than the full scale resumation of organised political violence in Northern Ireland. The Westminster government said last week that they would establish a commission to assess paramilitary organisations and organised crime. The DUP have said that they are “content” with this announcement and will be entering cross-party talks due to start soon. Sinn Féin have also said that they are entering these talks and the PSNI have welcomed the clear focus on organised crime. It is no doubt that cross-party talks will now see all involved trying to secure a better position for themselves.

It remains however a great shame and evident that, for whatever reason, structures put in place during the Troubles still exist and political point scoring invoking the past still goes on. Furthermore, whilst widescale organised paramilitary action seems to be a thing of the past, organised crime is still prevalent and as long as this remains the case, so will personal score settling that has a long and bloody history to feed on.

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