Written on the Barn
Glenn Patterson · The Death of Kevin McGuigan
I have recently had occasion to reread a piece I wrote in November 2007 following the beating to death of Paul Quinn in a shed on the southern side of the Irish border by – local people said – the Provisional IRA. I mentioned Gerry Adams’s categorical denial of IRA involvement, I noted that the British and Irish governments were reassured by his call for those involved to be brought to justice, and referenced the further calls, from the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Féin’s partner in the (then new) power-sharing executive to wait to see if there was evidence of ‘corporate’ IRA responsibility, a phrase whose ‘Blairite banality’, I suggested, masked ‘a volte-face to rival Orwell’s “four legs good, two legs better”’.
Substitute the name Kevin McGuigan for Paul Quinn and the piece might have been written yesterday.
Last week Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said the PSNI believed that Action Against Drugs – the gang that murdered Kevin McGuigan – included past and current members of the Provisional IRA. Cue the denials, not just of IRA involvement, but even of its existence. The IRA – Sinn Féin’s MLA for North Belfast, Gerry Kelly, was the first to come out with it – had, in a phrase revived from 2005, ‘left the stage’. (The Irish Times, misquoting Kelly repeatedly, used the term ‘left the State’, which might be wishful thinking.) Cue the calls for caution until it is proved the killing was sanctioned by the leadership, the warnings against other parties making political capital from it. Pace Sinn Féin, it is not only or even mostly ‘Unionists’ who are blaming the Provisionals: the people in the streets where Kevin McGuigan lived are blaming them. One Ulster Television news report claimed the laneway down which the gunmen made their escape was referred to locally as ‘Provo alley’.
At the weekend the PSNI’s chief constable, George Hamilton, clarified Geddes’s statement. The Provisional IRA continued to exist, he said, but in a much altered form. It was not involved in the preparation or commission of terrorist acts. Its main purpose was to ensure that republicans remained committed to peaceful and democratic means.
This is what is known as ‘a line’ and everyone is sticking to it. If this was a Radio 4 panel show there would be klaxons and cheers from the audience at the end of every interview. And if it was a Radio 4 panel show the winner, this week, would undoubtedly be Theresa Villiers, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, who, while saying she was satisfied that all parties in the executive remained supportive of the principles of democracy and consent, blithely said she wasn’t surprised that the IRA continued to exist. We are surprised, Secretary of State, only because you and your predecessors have spent the last decade trying to convince us, in the face of evidence to the contrary, that it does not.
To return again to that 2007 article, I have a vague memory of feeling the Animal Farm allusion was perhaps overstating it. Nearly eight years on I don’t think it’s going too far to say the ladder is lying broken in the farmyard, the paintbrush and overturned pot of white paint beside it. And I really wouldn’t be surprised if, statement by statement, in the weeks ahead, we are asked to believe that what is now written on the barn is what we signed up to all along.