SECURITY in border areas has become a huge concern again in view of the seemingly ready availability of guns to people who have links with either active or dormant paramilitary organisations and who know how to use weapons, be it for the cause they espouse or criminality for personal gain or both.
Following the Democratic Unionist Party’s tactical partial withdrawal from the Northern Ireland Assembly in the wake of suspicions voiced this summer by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) of Provisional IRA involvement in the murder of Kevin McGuigan in Belfast and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams’ assurances that the IRA had ‘gone away,’ reports were commissioned north and south of the border to establish the veracity of these claims. While there are some differences in the detail of the reports done by MI5 and the PSNI north of the border and An Garda Siochána down south, both raise what Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald described as ‘deeply troubling issues about PIRA (Provisional IRA) and the legacy of paramilitarism.’
The reports agree that, while the command structures are still in place, those in charge are dedicated to advancing the peace process. However, one interesting observation from the report compiled north of the border that many IRA members believe that the Provos’ Army Council ‘oversees’ Sinn Féin has been dismissed by the party leader Gerry Adams as ‘mischief making’.
The conclusion from the Northern Ireland security perspective contradicts the Garda assessment that the Provisional IRA Army Council no longer exists, however Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan also accepts the assessment made by the PSNI and MI5 in relation to their jurisdiction. This divergence of opinion highlights a clear need for more cross-border security co-operation and sharing of intelligence because any Army Council influence would straddle the border.
Whatever about who is pulling which political strings, it is clear from both reports – which are essentially security assessments – that there is a high incidence of criminality among both people who were associated with the Provisional IRA and those who are involved with ‘dissident’ republican factions. Northern Ireland would have a similar problem on the loyalist side of the divide in their areas of influence.
Many of them are violent criminals with ready access to guns, as illustrated by the amount of weaponry and ammunition found at the house of Adrian Crevan-Mackin, who cold-bloodedly murdered Garda Tony Golden in Omeath earlier this month before killing himself. This heightened fears that there was a lot more criminal activity going on around the border region than previously thought and it emerged that Garda resources were over-stretched in trying to deal with it.
In response to concerns expressed to the Commissioner by members of the force in the aftermath of Garda Golden’s murder, two sergeants and 25 extra gardai have been assigned to Garda divisions along the border, but these resources are being spread so thinly, it is difficult to envisage what real difference, if any, they can make in taking on the criminal elements.
Even though he was criticised for the use of the term, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin’s description of border areas where armed criminal gangs operate as a ‘twilight zone’ has some validity, because it seems the PSNI are also over-stretched at the northern side. Any realistic effort to tackle criminality and remaining pockets of paramilitary activity in border counties would require a special joint task force made up of the PSNI and An Garda Síochána in order to have any hope of being effective.
The publication of the PSNI-MI5 and Garda reports, coming in the immediate aftermath of the murder of Garda Golden, have brought a welcome renewed focus on the legacy problems of paramilitarism, especially the dangerous level of armed criminality it has spawned and which needs to be tackled head-on. While agencies such as An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners and the Criminal Assets Bureau have had various successes over the years in dealing with some of the criminal masterminds, the problem has not gone away and there seems to be a younger and more dangerous breed carrying on the culture of fear and intimidation in communities where they operate their criminal activities that needs to be faced down and made answerable to the law of the land.
We criticise the Americans for the amount of guns they allow people to legally hold, especially when there is a senseless massacre by some unhinged individual. However, in spite of paramilitary arms decommissioning, there seems to be a lot of illegally-held weapons available for use by criminals in Ireland and this aspect needs to be a big part of any crackdown.
As Minister Frances Fitzgerald stated, it is not ‘acceptable on any part of this island, for whatever purposes, to seek to retain the substance or the shadow of a gunman.’