This article originally appeared on VICE UK
Northern Ireland's administration is faltering, crippled by two vicious murders in Belfast that have ignited fears the paramilitary foot soldiers who brought bombs and bullets against British rule during The Troubles are still armed and in operation.
At the best of times, the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland is delicate. The system is an alternative democratic model designed for societies emerging from conflict. In this system, both cultural and religious traditions are represented in government. Nationalists and unionists cannot dominate one another, but must make decisions together as both must make up the cabinet, the idea being that both sides in a post-conflict society will begin to work together and build trust.
Today, however, Belfast's house of cards is trembling. In a frenzy centered around the alleged continued existence of the IRA, parties on both sides of the political divide are being encouraged to take part in urgent talks. Relations in the assembly were already under serious strain—deadlock, even—after months of wrestling over welfare reform, but this current crisis looks to test the parties in ways not seen since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The fallout can be traced back to early summer and the callous gunning down of ex-IRA commanding officer-turned-community worker Gerard "Jock" Davison.
Davison was walking home through the Markets area of Belfast on the morning of May 5 after purchasing his morning paper. A hooded gunman who had waited patiently in an alley made his move, shooting his victim in the back in broad daylight. After Davison had fallen to the ground, the hitman stood over him, shooting his victim a further four times before fleeing the scene.
What followed was fairly routine business. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) immediately appealed for witnesses and began their investigation. Over the course of the following weeks, the PSNI questioned a number of suspects and stated that they did not suspect republican or loyalist paramilitary involvement.
On August 12, just over three months after Davison's murder, former Provisional IRA (PIRA) assassin Kevin McGuigan was gunned down at the door of his family home in Belfast's Short Strand area. Two masked gunmen, both armed with automatic weapons, ambushed and shot McGuigan at least six times in the head and neck at close range.
The link? Like many men and women who lived through the violent 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, the two men met in the paramilitaries; McGuigan had worked closely with Davison as comrades in the Provisional IRA.
When the PIRA called its ceasefire in August of 1994, both men then became key assassins in a new PIRA unit active through the late 1990s and early 2000s, which called itself Direct Action Against Drugs (DAAD). The vigilante unit launched a murder campaign against known drug dealers who had been operating independently within Catholic neighborhoods across the province. Despite working together, it wasn't long before the two had fallen out of favor with one another, with McGuigan suffering a punishment shooting that he allegedly believed was ordered by Davison.
Kevin McGuigan's name had surfaced in the weeks following the Davison murder, whispered by former comrades as a possible suspect in the killing, but through his solicitor he repeatedly denied any involvement. More telling was that the PSNI had warned McGuigan that his life was in imminent danger. Choosing to stay, he ended up dead.
Just over a week later, at a press conference the senior policeman affirmed that the PSNI assessment was that "current members of the PIRA" were involved in the murder. When asked to clarify, the officer said: "Quite clearly we are saying PIRA still exists, because current members of PIRA were involved."
The statement created more questions than it answered. This assessment was a tremor that caused outrage across the unionist parties within the Northern Ireland administration.
It was at this moment that two acts of street criminality came to threaten the democratic post-conflict assembly in Northern Ireland: the killings now had political consequence.
The political difficulty of this is that the main republican party previously associated with the PIRA, Sinn Fein, had provided assurance for years that the IRA didn't exist any more and that their terror campaign was over. Officially, they're right. In July of 2005, the IRA proclaimed the end of their armed conflict in support of the peace process, vowing to pursue their objective of a united Ireland by democratic means and community activism.
In light of the police assessment on the IRA's involvement and existence, unionists were haunted by the often quoted quip of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in 1995: "They haven't gone away, you know."
The delicate balance of trust that exists between Sinn Fein and their unionist partners in the administration, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), stood to be shattered. Unionist politicians wanted answers, trust was fraying. Despite the rising furor, senior Sinn Fein officials reiterated that the IRA were no more.
The official PSNI statement needed clarification, and there was no time to waste in giving it.
Just two days later, Chief Constable George Hamilton explained to a packed press conference that the PIRA organizational structure does exist in a reduced form. He made it absolutely clear that the organization "no longer engaged in terrorism" but clarified that remaining parts of it may engage in criminality or violence to satisfy "personal gain or personal agendas."
Dismissing the revenge murder as feuding, he went on, "…they are little more than an organized crime group in my view."
The Chief Constable's assertion is not a revelatory one. The Independent Monitoring Commission, set up to provide intelligence-based assessments on the continued activity of republican and loyalist paramilitary organizations post-conflict, published an extensive report in 2008 specifically dealing with the remaining leadership of the PIRA. It found that, "…the organization's former terrorist capability has been lost."
What fell on deaf unionist ears in Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland assembly, was the Chief Constable's insistence that his intelligence information allowed him to "accept the bona fides of the Sinn Fein leadership regarding their rejection of violence and pursuit of the peace process and [to] accept their assurance that they want to support police in bringing those responsible to justice."
Either extraordinary opportunism or blind prematurity had set in. The gung-ho leader of the once main, now greatly diminished, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) left the assembly with their single minister and announced the party would quit government. The UUP's rash move could not destabilize the administration significantly but would force the hand of the larger unionist party, the DUP.
The UUP leader Mike Nesbitt insists that the mere confirmation that the IRA still exists makes it impossible for his party to trust Sinn Fein.
The arrest—and subsequent release without charge or condition—of Sinn Fein's northern chairman Bobby Storey last Wednesday tested the DUP's willingness to trust nationalist assurances that violence had been abandoned. They also began to drop out. Ultimately, it resulted in the resignation of the unionist First Minister Peter Robinson and most of his fellow DUP ministers, leaving only a small number of ministers in power.
By leaving the administration limping, the unionist parties have stalled all business until this issue is dealt with in entirety. With a view on next May's elections, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described the whole ordeal as an "inter-unionist rivalry." Rather than allowing a full police investigation to run its course, in a stampede for the barricades, both unionist parties have attempted to outmaneuver one another in taking a hardline position on the idea of the existence of the IRA.
Regardless of the real reasons behind the unionist action, London and Dublin have both voiced commitment to the continuation of devolution. The long-term investment in the peace process by both the British and Irish governments makes it in their best interests for the Northern Irish assembly to continue to function.
At the moment there is only talk about talks. An agreed basis for conversation is being sought by the UK's Northern Ireland Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, who called the whole crisis "a sign of a complete breakdown in the working relationships within the executive."
What do both sides want? The UUP and DUP want agreed action that would lead to the dismantling of what remains of paramilitary and, in particular, IRA structures. Sinn Fein insist the IRA have left the stage. The outcome of talks, should they happen, looks likely to be the reinstatement of an independent paramilitary watchdog.
In another political stalemate fueled by the old suspicions, tribal mantras, and political maneuvering, the law-abiding electorate of Northern Ireland are without a functioning local assembly. Talks are necessary to the continuing of political progress and of a power sharing administration. More importantly, they provide an opportunity for a collective effort by all parties to deal with the aftermath of the 30-year-long conflict, as it exists in the form of criminal gangs within some neighborhoods—the continuing legacy of a paramilitarized society.
But can the politicians of Northern Ireland work together to deliver this once and for all?
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