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N. Ireland peace threatened by rebels without a cause

The much-lauded peace process has not simply wiped Northern Ireland free of criminality. Rather, it has led paramilitaries to disown their political leaders and embrace organized crime, writes Gavan Reilly.

The peace process in Northern Ireland is widely hailed as a template for other troubled areas nationwide. Its main leaders have won Nobel prizes, and in a troubled era post-Afghanistan and Iraq, Northern Ireland is regularly held up by the United States as a rare example of its success in sustainable nation-building. But after three decades of an arduous peace process, a new report has revealed that not all of the province's paramilitaries have left the stage - and, more worryingly, hinted that the greatest security threats now lie outside political control.

'The report from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Britain's MI5 is the culmination of a crisis that emerged in August, when a leading republican and former paramilitary Kevin McGuigan was murdered in Belfast. PSNI investigators pointed blame at members of the IRA, which was previously thought to have effectively disbanded after laying down its arms in 2005.

The status of the IRA remains a point of dispute. The PSNI and MI5 report says that it, and its governing Army Council, continue to exist in a reduced form - and further, that its members believe the Army Council also holds control over Sinn Fein, which (since IRA disarmament) has become the largest republican party in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein itself denies the IRA's ongoing existence; party president Gerry Adams told the Irish parliament: "Sinn Fein is accountable to one grouping: That's the electorate. They're the people who give us our mandate … we're not accountable to any other group or organization."

Gerry Adams

Adams and Sinn Fein deny the IRA continues to exist

But the IRA claims prompted a crisis of confidence within (pro-British) unionist parties who, alongside Sinn Fein and other (pro-Irish) nationalists, share devolved power in Northern Ireland's government. They feared McGuigan's murderers were acting with the IRA's blessing - a fear given credence by the arrest of Sinn Fein's local chairman, though he was subsequently released without charge.

All-party talks were convened as a means of rebuilding trust across the unionist-nationalist divide - but the largest Unionist party, the DUP, demanded the simultaneous suspension of all parliamentary business. When this was refused, all but one of the DUP ministers resigned (the last remained in place simply to retain unionist control of the Department of Finance). Suddenly the landmark 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which entrenched the unionist-nationalist divide to ensure each is represented in government, seemed under threat.

Paramilitaries turn to organized crime

The DUP's fears prompted the British government to seek a security assessment of the IRA and other paramilitaries from both sides. That report has now emerged with some good news sandwiched between the bad. It found that the IRA and other large paramilitary groups were now fully committed to peaceful politics, had instructed their members accordingly, and no longer pose a threat to national security.

Peter Robinson

Robinson sees no difference between Sinn Fein and the IRA

The bad news was that fringe members on all sides had refused to follow suit - and that ex-paramilitaries on all have abandoned political militarism in favor of organized crime, often exploiting the gaps in policing between Northern Ireland and the neighboring Republic. Where Northern Ireland once had principled paramilitaries, it now has rebels without a cause, unwilling to cede the power gained by their lawlessness.

The latter finding is perhaps more worrisome. Northern Ireland's peace process succeeded where others have failed simply because most paramilitary groups were either sympathetic, or affiliated, to a political party that supported the devolved government. Thus, whenever a cross-party agreement was reached, it inevitably claimed the support of most paramilitaries too. With many of those paramilitaries now becoming criminals without a political motive, beyond the loyalty of any peaceful politicians, the future seems a touch more bleak.

If there is good news, it is the return of the DUP to the power-sharing government - despite the finding that its government partners Sinn Fein are under IRA control. "For me it's a distinction without a difference," DUP leader Peter Robinson explained. "For me, the DNA of the [IRA] Army Council was identical to the DNA of the Sinn Fein leadership."

Ironically, the smaller Ulster Unionist Party has cited the same logic as justification for the resignation of its sole minister.

Local parties remain in control

The return of the DUP should, for now, avert the collapse of the government - which in effect would mean the collapse of governance itself, prompting the return of direct rule under British Prime Minister David Cameron just as the threat of organized crime becomes apparent.

Northern Ireland's parliament

Northern Ireland continues to be governed from Belfast, for now

Ironically, the continued existence of a skeletal IRA may be a benefit - as the MI5 report indicates the remnant IRA has kept some of its weapons simply to keep them away from others. "The real threat is coming from the dissident group, which is where we have to be very careful," commented former Irish premier Bertie Ahern, a key instigator of the 1998 agreement. "Some of the structures that remain of the IRA have helped to keep that down. I've always held that view and this report makes it very clear that that's the case."

With Northern Ireland now facing up to a more deeply ingrained culture of organized crime, the lingering effects of decades of armed violence continue in perhaps more dangerous ways than ever before. The paramilitaries who wrought havoc for so many years may now emerge as unlikely allies in the road to permanent peace.

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