Martin Galvin (MG) speaks to award winning journalist, historian and author Ed Moloney (EM) via telephone who comments on Martin McGuinness’ health issues, the Stack case, the Sinn Féin response to the RHI (Renewable Heat Initiative) scandal and the impact of issues on the future of the Assembly and the Executive in The North of Ireland. (begins time stamp ~ 28:10)
MG: And with us on the line we have the journalist, formerly with the Irish Times, Sunday Tribune, Hibernian magazine – historian and author of books such as A Secret History of the IRA and Voices From the Grave. Ed, welcome back to Radio Free Éireann.
EM: Thank you, Martin, very nice to be back.
MG: Ed, John had tracked down – there were discussions about Martin McGuinness’ medical condition and whether it would mean that he would be stepping down or deceasing his duties and again, we’re just covering this because it’s a news story. Everybody wishes him the best of health and recovery from any problems that he has. Why is it so important? Why is Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, why are their continued leadership in Sinn Féin – why is that viewed as so important? Even now Martin McGuinness is in his late sixties. Gerry Adams is close to seventy years of age. What is the impact if they do – one or both – does step down?
EM: Well they’ve always been like the Siamese twins of the Provos for the last twenty years or so in the sense that it was a double act that was required to bring the IRA into the ceasefire situation and then into the peace process. And the reason for that was very simple. It was: Gerry Adams was, as most people know, a very senior figure in the IRA; at one stage he was Chief of Staff, he was Belfast Brigade Commander a couple of times at least, he was Adjutant General and various other very senior posts. But he never had the reputation of someone who went out with Active Service Units and pulled triggers or pressed buttons or whatever the IRA is required to do. He was very much a general who sat behind the lines and that’s very well known within the IRA and for that reason people within the IRA itself were always a little bit leery of his military reputation whereas Martin McGuinness has the name of someone who actually did go out on operations and, as they say, ‘did the business’. So when it came to selling the peace process strategy to the grassroots I don’t think Gerry Adams could have done that by himself because I don’t think the trust was there on the part of the rank-and-file, the activists, the people who were the foot soldiers of the IRA who looked down on Adams somewhat you know that he was – Okay, he was a bright guy and he was a clever strategist but he’d never done what the other guys had done whereas Martin McGuinness did. So the fact that Martin McGuinness appeared with Gerry Adams as sort of a double act in the peace process years – backing Adams, always seen in his company, supporting him, at one point telling journalists that Gerry Adams is someone who puts into words thoughts that he has but can’t himself put into words and very much that he admired Adams and so on and so forth but the combination of the two together was strong enough and persuasive enough to bring along sufficient number inside the IRA. So it’s very important for that strategy that the pair of them acted together in concert. If one of them goes, and the rumours are that he is very seriously ill and that if he’s as seriously ill as people say that may well precipitate his departure, it does a couple of things. First of all it ends that partnership and secondly it raises automatically questions about Gerry Adams’ own future. You know, once one partner goes what happens to the other one? It becomes much more a live issue, that: Will he go? Should he go? And as you know there’s a tremendous amount of pressure from the political establishment and the media establishment in The South, in the Republic, against Adams and they all want to see him go and you know that pressure could increase quite considerably if McGuinness decides to retire.
MG: Ed, just before we broke in December there was a major story that we had covered in The South. It was about a killing that occurred years ago of a guard at Portlaoise Prison, Brian Stack, and his sons had come to Gerry Adams, requested information. Adams had apparently given some information, or at least arranged for meetings with the IRA for them, and that is still having repercussions as people are saying he should do more, the sons of the killed Portlaoise officer are saying that he should do more. Other people are saying he should never have given – there should have never been an email that released or involved any names – names which were then brought up in Leinster House under privilege. Could you tell us about the importance of that?
EM: Well, it’s one of these situations which is a very difficult one. As you say, what happened was that Gerry Adams took the son, or the sons, of this prison officer, a guy called Stack, to meet the IRA and to be told by the IRA what the circumstances were of their father’s killing. And for many, many years they had declared that they knew nothing about the circumstances behind the man’s death. Then latterly have admitted that yes, it was one of their operations but it was not authorised. All of which, incidentally, I take with a quite a large pinch of salt – I’m not inclined to believe it – I think it was an authorised operation but they daren’t say it was an authorised operation because that breaks IRA rules which forbid actions against members of the southern security forces – the police, army, prison guards, etc. So it’s a very difficult one. Adams will argue that he was trying to get closure for the family and find out what happened. The family are saying: No, we want more than this. I don’t think they believe the story about it being an unauthorised operation either and they want Adams to name the IRA man that he took the two sons to meet which is of course is something that he’s not going to do and I don’t think can do and get away with it but the pressure is on him to do something and it’s coming from, not just from the family, but also from all the other usual political opponents of the Provos in The South.
EM: There is now a police investigation re-launched into Stack’s killing and where that leads will be very interesting indeed.
MG: Alright. I just want to go back to Martin McGuinness: Now, we’ve seen some confusion within Sinn Féin in The North that a party that is known just for being very disciplined, well-organised, that everybody’s ‘on message’. For example John talked briefly – and we’re not – we’re going to cover this story in future, we’re not going to go to it in detail today. Right now there is an issue, there was a renewable heat initiative some years ago under Arlene Foster. It turned out that you could actually make money per unit per heat – she presided over it. There’s a fortune going to be lost to The North, the government, because of it. There are calls for her to step down. Sinn Féin is the, actually the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) had made a motion of no-confidence in her. There’s a fight over whether there should be a public inquiry or what Sinn Féin’s posture should be. Now during the week some of the members of Sinn Féin, Declan Kearney and others, had argued that there has to be – Mary Lou McDonald – that there has to be a public inquiry. Other members of Sinn Féin said: No, it could be some kind of robust inquiry, not public, behind closed doors. There were actually statements pulled out whether it should be a public inquiry or not – pulled out of a press release and then put back into a press release from Declan Kearney – those types of things did not happen when, up until now, wouldn’t have happened I think if Martin McGuinness was fully at the helm. What do you think the impact is of him having any medical issues?
EM: Well I guess it probably doesn’t help that he’s not around or not functioning at a hundred percent because, as you say, there’s been a whole number of mistakes made but they all arise from I think a fundamental weakness in Sinn Féin’s position which is that the Assembly and the power-sharing government, the Good Friday Agreement institutions in other words, are really what the peace process is all about. They swapped the IRA’s armed struggle and they swapped quite a very important political belief such as the idea that the Unionists did not have the veto on Irish unity and that their consent was not required for Irish unity which has always been the rationale, indeed the raison d‘être, of the IRA and the armed struggle, they swapped all of those cardinal, defining aspects of their ideology in return for the power-sharing government and the power-sharing Assembly. And I think what the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) have discovered is that they daren’t let go of those and they daren’t be seen to abandon the power-sharing Assembly and the Executive because if they go then they have nothing to show for basically giving up their armed struggle and I think they’re taking advantage of that and this Renewable Heat Initiative (RHI) is I think an example of that. And it’s an extraordinary situation if you think about it. The way that it works: These are pellet stoves which are very common in rural areas in the United States. I mean, we have a pellet stove up in upstate. And you buy these bags of pellets; they’re fairly cheap. They give off tremendous heat. They’re a bit awkward to fill up etc but they’re very efficient. But the way that they introduced this system in The North was that if for every dollar that you spent on a pellet, on a supply of pellets, you got a subsidy back from the government of one dollar sixty cents. This is an extraordinary money-making scheme which was only open, incidentally, to certain types of people. It wasn’t like open to you and me. It would be open to farmers and industrial people and stuff like that and they were – what they’ve been doing – is that they’ve filling their barns with these pellet stoves and making an absolute fortune in subsidies. I mean for every dollar of pellets that they burn they’re getting back sixty cents pure profit which is a great deal when you think about it for doing virtually nothing except warming up an empty barn. And this is all being paid for out of the Exchequer at a time when Sinn Féin and the other parties have all signed up to a whole series of austerity measures which are affecting working class people in Belfast – both Loyalist, Unionist, Nationalist and Republican – all being asked to make sacrifices and here this scheme, which has the taint of being made available more freely to supporters of the DUP than to anyone else, that’s existing and Sinn Féin is doing next to nothing about it. So there was a huge amount of anger in their own party’s ranks which I think has led to this confusion by the leadership, not helped by the fact that Martin McGuinness was not in fully functioning mode, and they’ve been all over the place quite literally. I mean I had a piece on my blog during the week about the number of flip-flops that they have performed – you know, on one day demanding a public inquiry – the next day saying sorry, that was a typo. We meant a robust inquiry rather than a public inquiry and so on and so forth. And it’s at that point where the credibility of the party and the credibility of its strategy is very much being tested here. How it’s all going to end up remains to be seen but my money very firmly would be on nothing happening that would threaten the institutions and that eventually a deal will be done which keeps the show running and preserves, more or less, the institutions as we have them and that the DUP will more or less get away, I reckon, with what they’ve done here because the alternative is to make a real principled issue out of it, push it to the breaking point and bring the whole edifice down and that, I don’t believe, Sinn Féin ever will do or want to do.
MG: Ed, this brings us to the central question: As you say, when armed struggle was given up in exchange for access to Stormont and other political concessions the whole idea, the idea behind the armed struggle or the raison d‘être of the armed struggle, the reason that there was a struggle for freedom in Ireland, the reason that there was some negotiations, the reason for Sinn Féin’s very existence is to get a united Ireland – is to end British rule. And it was said during the negotiations that by working with the DUP or working with the official Unionists, by Sinn Féin playing a part there – Unionists, they would build, gradually, goodwill with Unionists and Unionist somehow – through cross-border bodies, through working with Sinn Féin, Unionist voters would come to accept the idea of a united Ireland and as the Nationalist population or percentage of the population rose you’d ultimately have a Nationalist majority who wanted freedom for all Ireland. Now that has not happened. The latest statistics, there was a programme, The View, some time ago that said that eighty-eight percent of Protestants were firmly committed to staying within British rule. That only about half that number, forty-three percent, less than half that number, forty-three percent of Catholics wanted a united Ireland. The rest either were undecided or were content with British rule. It seems that there’s no real movement towards the ultimate goal. Why stay with a strategy that is not working to achieve what it was objected to achieve?
EM: I think really, basically, the answer to that is that they were militarily defeated when the peace process took off and that when the IRA called its ceasefire in 1994 it was from a position of extreme weakness. And my own conviction, and it’s not just fanciful speculation on my part – I’m basing this on some facts that I am aware of – is that the level of infiltration of the IRA by British intelligence forces by the time of the peace process was such that it became a legitimate question as to who was really running the show? Was it the IRA leadership? The Army Council? Or was it British intelligence manipulating things in the background? And effectively, eighty percent of their operations were being compromised. They were losing men and materials. The Eksund was lost in 1987 and with The Eksund was the last great military throw had been lost as well. They were going to launch this huge big Tet-style offensive with the idea of sickening British public opinion and encouraging the view that it was time to get out of this place because it’s such a mess it’s going to go on forever. Well, once The Eksund was betrayed – and The Eksund was betrayed. I mean there had to be at least two agents on the job there and very possibly more who knew about an operation that was kept highly secret for a long time and that demonstrated just how badly infiltrated the IRA had become. And one can ask all sorts of questions about the behaviour of the Internal Security Unit – why the same people stayed in those spots for so long and so on and so forth. But the fact remains, whatever the truth behind all that speculation is, and my view is that militarily they were, essentially, defeated and they were operating from a position of weakness really all the way through the peace process negotiations.
MG: Alright. But even if that is correct, John brought up at the beginning of the programme that at the end of the ’50’s campaign, which was certainly militarily defeated – was going nowhere. They dumped arms but they were certainly committed to try and find a strategy that would lead to a united Ireland. They were not going to go to something that was counter-productive, that was going to never lead to a united Ireland. It seems as if being in Stormont – Arlene Foster has talked about the next century or the second century of Northern Ireland – it seems as if the position of support for British rule and the Unionists – Arlene Foster can put Martin McGuinness in his place, that’s what it seems. They don’t compromise, the British don’t have to do anything, they wait for Arlene Foster to say: Nothing on legacy, nothing on this, nothing on that. And when they do the hard bargaining and pull the concessions out of Sinn Féin the British can just simply just sit back and take advantage of this and pretend to be neutral and not to care while all the time they’re having their will done and there’s no growing movement/popular support for a united Ireland. It seems the statistics are going further and further back. You don’t have any immediate prospect of getting a border poll and ….
EM: …winning it…
MG: Right! If you lose it then you can’t even bring it up for another seven years and in the Twenty-Six Counties people say: Well, don’t even talk to us. You know, have to vote on it ‘up there’ first.
EM: The first point to make, Martin, in relation to all of that is that there’s a fundamental basic different between what happened at the end of the 1956-62 IRA campaign and what happened at the end of the Provos’ war. The 1956-62 campaign ended with them just saying: Alright, we’re stopping for the time being,dump arms, another day will come and we’ll wait for that day. This ending of an IRA phase is unprecedented in Republican history in the sense that never before had a leadership burned its ideological bridges behind it as it went into a peaceful situation which is what happened with the Provos. They burned their own ideology in terms of the bridges – once they crossed those bridges they burned the bridges behind them and they couldn’t return. And I’m thinking there in terms of accepting the idea of Unionist consent which is fundamental to Republican ideology. You know, the whole basis of the IRA was you know, the First Dáil and the Second Dáil, both of which were all-Ireland elections which returned a majority in favour of Sinn Féin therefore the enforcement of partition was undemocratic and anti-democratic and was against the will of the Irish people as a whole, etc etc all of that philosophy and ideology was thrown out when they went into the peace process and that is the major difference. And that is why – I mean it’s rather like the Berlin wall coming down in terms of the effect that it had on Communist ideology in eastern Europe – you know, once they had, once the former communists had become capitalists as it were there was no going back. And in a sense the Provos have done something very similar to that with the peace process. They have essentially accepted the constitutional nationalist approach to the border and to partition which means that we need to win over the Unionists to the notion of Irish unity, we cannot try to militarily expel the British or anything like that because we’re now committed to peaceful quote ‘democratic’ means. And that is the difference between 1956-1962 so the war is over and there’s no getting away from that and it’s over because, not just they lost militarily, but also that they have ditched the ideology and philosophy behind what used to be armed Republicanism.
MG: But Ed, what they did say was that we will get a united Ireland – gradually you’re going to get a Nationalist majority even within The Six Countries, and we’ll gradually, by showing how we can participate, work with Unionists, that we’re going to build goodwill. We’ll do confidence builders. We’ll do concessions. They’ll work with us. They’ll get used to seeing us and that gradually enough Unionist, enough Nationalist population, enough Unionists will come over and support a united Ireland and we’ll get a united Ireland that way. That was the argument that was marketed here. The opposite is happening. The strength of Unionism within the Nationalist community seems to be growing and as a result of this strategy and the number of the Protestant community, in religious terms, who support British rule seems to be as strong as ever before. So even if you say we’re committed now to a political strategy, even if you say we’re going to do this by getting a majority for a united Ireland within the Six Counties and then merge with the Twenty-Six Counties, if they were saying, on that basis, our ultimate goal remains the same as that of constitutional nationalism: a united Ireland – only we want to do it by different means – we’ll recognise the Unionist border, we’ll recognise Unionist veto, as you say, that there has to be Unionist support in the Six Counties – on that basis though, the strategy seems to be going in exactly the wrong direction. Why stay with a political strategy that seems to be counter-productive, which seems to be damaging your ultimate objective, which seems to be strengthening the hand of British rule and getting to Arlene Foster’s goal that there should be another century, a second century, of Northern Ireland and perhaps more beyond that rather than pursue something that’s going to do what they said they were going to do – achieve a united Ireland – even if peacefully, even if politically, even if it required a majority in the Six Counties to do it?
EM: Well, the answer to that is very simple, Martin: They’ve got no where else to go. They can’t go back to war. They’re old men now, a lot of them, to begin with. The atmosphere has changed; the tolerance for violence I think is much less than it used to be but also they have made all of these ideological concessions. They cannot, without like being consigning themselves into an utter political wilderness, they cannot go back on all of these great pledges that they’ve made about accepting the Principle of Consent which is at the heart of the peace process and the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. It’s the first thing that Tony Blair said when he came out of the negotiating room, chambers, when they had reached agreement. He said: This is historic because of this reason: Republicans have accepted the Principle of Consent – that there can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland, ie, the Unionists in practice. And he recognised the importance of it. And that’s what the peace process was all about. It was to get to a point where the Provos accepted this doctrine. They did so and to go back on that and say: Actually, we’ve changed our mind. What are they going to then do? Re-start the war? They’re in no position to re-start any war at all. And therefore, that is the point I was making at the beginning is that they’ve really got no where else to go except the Assembly and the Executive and therefore they will keep it going and therefore the DUP can treat them, quite literally, with contempt knowing that, at the end of the day, they’re not going to bring the house down on themselves.
MG: Well on that depressing note you can see that even that there is a One Ireland One Vote campaign movement of the 1916 Societies in Ireland which says that all the people of Ireland, those in Dublin and Donegal should vote alongside those in Doire, and they should have an equal say about the freedom of their country or the future of their country – you don’t even see that being pushed by Sinn Féin at this time – something that could lead, change the landscape and start leading us back to a united Ireland. Alright, Ed…
EM: …I can give you one more piece of good news, though, which is Arsenal are being beaten in the FA Cup and that brings cheer to everyone I think.
MG: Well I don’t know. I’d be more interested in the Giants and Packer game tomorrow. I’m a Jet fan so I don’t even get cheered from that so. Alright, Ed, I want to thank you for being with us and going through some – we wanted to cover some more issues but I think you’ve gotten to the heart of what the real, crucial issues are in The North of Ireland and I appreciate that very much.
EM: No problem, Martin. Thank you now. Bye-bye. (ends time stamp ~55:36)