THE PROVISIONAL IRA is less popular today in the north of Ireland than at any time for the last 35 years.
The immediate reason has to do with the 30 January murder of Robert McCartney from the Short Strand area of Belfast.
Robert, a 34 year old father of two, was kicked, beaten and knifed to death by a drunken mob which included senior IRA men who had just returned from the annual Bloody Sunday commemoration march in Derry.
Robert’s murder has hit the IRA far harder than December’s Northern Bank robbery.
Now every establishment voice is raised high demanding that Sinn Fein detach itself from the IRA if it wants to be included in a future executive in the North or in government in the South. The concern of these elements for the people of the Short Strand is unconvincing. But they have the Republicans on the run because Sinn Fein’s first instinct was to cover up what the IRA had done or pass it off as part of “the knife culture”.
The people of the Short Stand and beyond weren’t buying that. Scrambling to recover lost ground, Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams said last weekend that if he had evidence about the killing he’d give it in court. This was seismic stuff — the Sinn Fein president saying he’d testify in a British court against members of the IRA.
These events have not changed Sinn Fein’s course but speeded it up.
For more than a decade, the Sinn Fein leadership has been moving to ditch the IRA and join the political establishment. Governments and most media commentators have welcomed this development and showered praise on Adams for leading the way.
The reason is that, armed struggle apart, there is nothing fundamental to distinguish Sinn Fein from centre-ground parties.
While the executive operated in the North, Sinn Fein ministers implemented privatisation in schools and hospitals while running away from a woman’s right to choose.
In the South, the party has been playing footsie with Irish prime minster Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fail party about the possibility of a future coalition.
But this seemingly smooth transition from outlaw movement to party of government conceals a contradiction now brought to the fore by the Robert McCartney killing.
The Republicans abandoned the objective for which the armed struggle had been waged when they signed up to the Belfast Agreement in 1998.
This left the IRA as a clandestine army rooted in working class areas but with no obvious role apart from “policing” — maiming young people for “anti-social behaviour” and punishing others for showing the IRA disrespect
The apolitical arrogance which this engendered over a period of ten years culminated in the killing of Robert McCartney. Outrage against the atrocity is now being used by Unionists and New Labour to push Sinn Fein into full acceptance of the police and the rule of law generally. They urge the party to join the policing board, and back the cops in putting down “unruly elements”.
The double-talk and opportunism of the party in the past leaves Sinn Fein unable to counter this pressure convincingly.
There’s also more than a suspicion that, while they won’t have wanted it to happen in these fraught circumstances, Sinn Fein leaders always knew that this moment would come and may be minded now just to get it over with.
Forgiveness and glittering prizes are on offer if they do. This would, of course, amount to the formal abandonment of any notion of struggle. Socialists are arguing that if they are now to turn away decisively from armed struggle, activists should reject the road to the right which they are being encouraged to take and turn instead towards the socialist ideas which alone can carry the struggle forward.
Eamonn McCann is an Irish socialist writer and one of the founders of the 1960s civil rights movement