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Sunday 5 December 2004

Well Bertie, who is running Ireland: the Government or the hard men of the IRA?

'WHO is running the Government?" asked Garda Jerry McCabe's widow last week. "Sinn Fein and the IRA or Bertie Ahern?" 

Another good question from Mrs McCabe, who is a real trial to poor Bertie. Not only does she pursue justice for her dead husband, but - as an Irish patriot - she insists on pointing out the threat to our democracy posed by fascist paramilitaries and a morally weak government. 

In the seven years since her husband's murder - Sorry, lawyers, I withdraw that inaccurate term. While Kevin Walsh, Pearse McAuley, Michael O'Neill and Jeremiah Sheehy were originally charged with murder, the refusal of one key witness to give evidence and the collapse into amnesia of two others, led to a lawyers' deal that let the defendants plead guilty to manslaughter: instead of mandatory sentences of 40 years, in February 1999 they were sent down with between 11 and 14 years. 

Since manslaughter is "the unlawful killing of one human by another without express or implied intent to do injury", we are required to accept that when in June 1996 Walsh and his pals jumped out of their car in Adare ready to rob a van of its IR£100,000 and fired 15 bullets into the escort car, they meant no harm. 

"They were convicted of manslaughter, and we had to take that, even though in my view it was murder," said Ann McCabe. 

It was some comfort that the Taoiseach agreed: "Jerry McCabe was murdered as far as I'm concerned", he said. 

But in the seven years since her husband's death, Ann McCabe's grief has been compounded by lies and broken promises. 

First, there was the blatant denial of involvement by the IRA. Yet while it was true that the gang had been freelancing, there was no ceasefire, and they were too politically naive to grasp that it was OK to murder newsagents in Canary Wharf but not to do a bit of armed robbing. And even though killing gardai was against IRA rules (bad publicity), it was hard to disown members who included among their number such icons as Walsh (Martin Ferris's successor as leader of the IRA's "Munster brigade") and Pearse McAuley (who shot his way out of Brixton prison in 1991). The IRA had to grit its collective teeth, acknowledge its errant members and have a few chats with potentially unhelpful witnesses. 

So Ann McCabe's next ordeal was in court, where she saw intimidation triumph over justice. Still, she was promised that the killers would serve their full sentences: although other IRA killers of gardai were getting early release under the Good Friday Agreement, that would never happen with the McCabe killers. 

Now you might have thought that considering Jerry McCabe had died and his colleague Ben O'Sullivan had been seriously injured, the Walsh gang had got off pretty lightly. But that wasn't - and isn't - the way it seemed to them or to republicans, who made them martyrs. "They must and will be released," said Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. "They won't be," said Bertie and John O'Donoghue. "Read our lips." 

In truth, there was no logical justification for keeping the Walsh crew in jail while truckloads of other killers were released, but there were electoral considerations, so the promise was made over and over again. 

The Northern leaders of Sinn Fein, however, are cold, hard people who hate us and they like to get what they want. When Adams and McGuinness tell Bertie that the lads won't do business unless X or Y concession is granted, they're not just talking about Brian Keenan, the Army Council's implacable old Marxist, and such criminal capitalists as Thomas 'Slab' Murphy and the boys of Bandit Country. They're talking too of the implacable H-Block gang, Long Kesh comrades like Gerry Kelly, Bik McFarlane, Bobby Storey and Seanna Walsh - all selflessly focused on the project of seeing Sinn Fein/IRA take over from the softies in the south. 

Eventually, Bertie caved in and with the help of a smart official found a way of justifying his volte-face: they would not be released under the Good Friday Agreement, but under the Offences Against the State Act. 

Morally, as Enda Kenny has pointed out eloquently, Bertie has disgraced himself and his government. "It was clear that if we were to get to a position where we would have decommissioning of IRA arms held by the IRA leadership in GHQ," said Bertie feebly to the Dail last week, "and to get to a position where there would be instructions to IRA volunteers, the Government, as part of a comprehensive agreement, would give consideration to the early release of the prisoners." On previous form, that means that if a (highly unlikely) deal is done between the DUP and Sinn Fein, in the ensuing familiar euphoria, the Walsh crew will be out before you can say "appeasement" and the IRA will continue business as usual under some flag of convenience. 

But all is not lost. The PDs are faintly signalling that they won't go along with early release until they are certain the IRA has been wound up. There are a few tests that could be applied to reassure Ann McCabe that Bertie Ahern rather than Sinn Fein/IRA is running the government. 

Has transparent decommissioning taken place? Has the Army Council publicly stated that it has no more weapons dumps and ordered its members to cease all illegal activity? Has the International Monitoring Commission confirmed that the IRA has additionally decommissioned organised crime, beating, shooting and intelligence gathering and is no longer running Sinn Fein? 

With much media opinion disgracefully regurgitating the line that the release of the Walsh gang is crucial to a deal, poor Ann McCabe said, "I don't want to go down in history as stalling the peace process." My guess is that history will report that she was one of the few who saw clearly that republicans threatened our state and stood up to them in the name of morality and justice. 

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards