From 1995 to 2001 an organisation calling itself Direct Action Against Drugs, or DAAD, was involved in a series of “vigilante-style” attacks on a number of criminals and underworld gangs in the north-east of Ireland. The various assaults, involving the use of guns, bombs and so-called “punishment beatings”, took place against the background of the Irish-British peace process of the 1990s and early 2000s, and two negotiated ceasefires by the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army and the British Occupation Forces – the latter without formal acknowledgement by the UK authorities. Indeed it was widely accepted that DAAD was simply a flag of convenience for (P)IRA as the organisation dealt with anti-social elements amongst the northern nationalist communities in a more covert manner than was common during the decades-long period of open conflict. Moreover many of those involved in its activities were newly recruited volunteers rather than military veterans of the insurgency, and no small number gained deeply unsavoury reputations of their own. Unsurprisingly in the pursuit of “peace” and an end to the Long War (or “Troubles”) the governments in Dublin and London frequently turned a blind eye to the policy of “self-policing” by the (Provisional) Republican Movement until the early 2000s when the DAAD-strategy was largely abandoned by (P)IRA.
Unfortunately the violent genie once let loose from the bottle was never going to be returned and the same period witnessed increasing social and interpersonal conflict amongst some communities in the north-east as they eased their way out of a near half-century of military occupation and a communal resistance to that occupation. While hundreds of (P)IRA volunteers were happy to seek some form of normality in their lives after decades of clandestine activity others proved unable to let go of the past, joining those who sought new opportunities to assert their social standing or influence in a time of (relative) peace. One illustration of this post-war turbulence is the 2005 killing of Robert McCartney, a petty criminal who – along with a compatriot – was beaten and stabbed in a violent, drink-fuelled altercation with local republicans in Belfast. Following a lengthy internal investigation that some allege covered up as much as it revealed Sinn Féin suspended, expelled or forced into resignation several activists while (P)IRA court-martialled and dismissed three volunteers, including Gerard Davison, a senior brigade officer in Belfast, an SF member and the probable directer of DAAD’s anti-criminal operations in the city. Several other (P)IRA figures suspected of being involved in the murder were cleared of any responsibility, although to a great deal of public scepticism.
Fast-forward to May 2015 and Gerard Davison, still firmly within the Sinn Féin fold – despite his divisive reputation – and linked to anti-criminal campaigning in his neighbourhood, was shot dead by an assassin in the Markets area of Belfast while on his way to a community centre where he worked. Forensic evidence soon pointed to a notorious Lithuanian gang based in Dublin as the supplier of the Russian-made handgun used in the murder. Within weeks local witnesses and republican activists had identified one Kevin McGuigan, a former (P)IRA volunteer-turned-criminal, as the suspected gunman. Some three months later McGuigan also met a violent end, shot to death at his home in the Short Strand district of the city by two masked men armed with semi-automatic weapons. Remarkably both victims were former comrades in (P)IRA’s Belfast Brigade and McGuigan had served under Davison in the DAAD structure. Suspected corruption and personal animosity had led to McGuigan’s violent dismissal from (P)IRA, seemingly pushing him into closer association with criminal elements in Belfast and elsewhere.
Now the British paramilitary police in the north-east of the country, the PSNI, are briefing the news media that an existing vigilante organisation which claimed responsibility for Kevin McGuigan’s revenge killing, Action Against Drugs or AAD, is composed of former (P)IRA volunteers and activists from one or more of the republican Resistance groupings (the so-called “Dissidents”). Furthermore it seems that current volunteers within the stood-down (Provisional) Irish Republican Army may have co-operated, probably in a personal capacity, with AAD in planning the murder of McGuigan. The idea that (P)IRA continues to exist as a military organisation, however skeletal its nature, seems to have taken a lot of journalists, politicians and other commentators by surprise, which I suppose highlights the levels of wilful ignorance or feigned naivety that exists amongst the chattering classes. Of course the Executive, Army Council, GHQ Staff and various directorships and departments still exist, if only in nominal form. It doesn’t mean that (P)IRA has several hundred volunteers ready and willing to be placed on active service should the need arise, or units capable of being mobilised across the length and breadth of the country with the issuing of a communiqué from Dublin. Did it ever?
We exist not in a period of peace but in a period marked by an absence of war. This is the fíorpholaitíocht of the peace process between Ireland and Britain, this is the defining characteristic of the British Occupied North of Ireland and it will remain so until the occupation itself ends. The (Provisional) Irish Republican Army and the British Army have not gone away, nor have their allies and proxies. The Long War may be over but the Cold War is not.