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Sunday 19 April 2009

Rebels an inconvenient truth for Adams and co 

Sinn Fein faces a difficult housekeeping problem that won't be solved easily, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

So what would you do? Put yourself in the position of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, as this weekend they talk about what the hell to do about the dissidents.

First -- if they're being serious -- they need to have an honest stock-take.

The great Adams strategy has failed, and the recent challenges from dissidents have brought that failure into pitiless public view. What was sold to the faithful to reconcile them to the Good Friday Agreement was that in power North and South of the border, Sinn Fein would remorselessly drive policy in the direction of a united Ireland. With a fair wind, republicans believed, president Adams would have been in office in 2016, when the Brits finally sold out the demoralised, fragmented unionists.

That dream died when Adams blew the general election in 2007 by revealing he was an economic illiterate who didn't understand the South. Instead of SF taking 10 or more seats triumphantly into coalition with Fianna Fail, it found itself with four dismal deputies pressing their noses to the window of the cabinet room.

On top of all this, dissident republicans are killing and maiming and threatening to "execute", not just soldiers, police and pizza delivery-men but such "counter-revolutionaries" as the Deputy First Minister himself.

In Derry, where not a fly would have looked sideways at Baron McGuinness in the good old days when Provos ruled with gun and baseball bat, the Real IRA informs an Easter crowd they're defending national sovereignty against "the quislings in Stormont". In Adams's fiefdom of West Belfast, anti-SF graffiti is sprouting and attacks on the party's offices include three on Connolly House in the Andersonstown heartland and the smashing of a memorial to IRA dead.

What, Gerry and Martin will be asking, as they beef up their security, can we do about it?

They've tried the lofty statesman approach, but photographs of McGuinness with US President Barack Obama, and Adams with the Hamas prime minister, win no prizes in bleak housing estates where jobless young men crave excitement.

Moral authority? They lost that a year ago with the death of their most iconic supporter, Brian Keenan, revered architect of such "spectaculars" as the bombing of Canary Wharf. Other well-known names have changed sides. Bernard Fox, once named in the House of Commons as being on the army council, has resigned from SF and challenges Adams in Belfast. And rumours about other potential defectors fly about.

Violence? A decade ago, after the Omagh bomb, Provos visited Real IRA leaders, beat some of them up and threatened to kill them all if they didn't declare a ceasefire. That worked only in the short term. Annoyed by his impudence, in 2000, in broad daylight, they murdered Joe O'Connor, RIRA's Belfast commander, and got away with it. Could they do a bit of culling now, they must wonder? It's difficult. SF is on the policing boards and wants justice and policing devolved.

Deniable killings? That might wash with the Dublin and London governments, but on the ground in the North denials wouldn't work. Make martyrs of dissidents, and there could be an electoral whirlwind. And republicans know all too well how feuds spiral out of control. As recently as the mid-Nineties, those who died in an INLA feud included the instigators. Kill a RIRA or CIRA leader and you risk gun-battles on the streets in your own constituencies. Appease the dissidents? How? They've made it blindingly clear that the only issue is getting the Brits out.

Harness the electorate? Well, maybe it's possible that at a time of economic disaster SF might do well in the European elections and clean up in the local elections in the South, but the polls suggest the public are in no mood to take risks and success wouldn't actually bring power. Or impress the nihilists.

There's a desperate attempt to try community consensus and harness 97 per cent of nationalism to defeat the 3 per cent: Bobby Storey, once described in the European parliament as being the IRA's chief of intelligence, joined forces with Alex Attwood of the SDLP to denounce the dissidents in an open letter. Yet how well can the old enemies, SF and the SDLP, work together?

If you train young men to admire killers of policemen and soldiers, it is hardly surprising they decide they want to emulate their heroes. The truth is the Provos are in a bad place, it's their own fault and they don't know how to get out of it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards