Of the many, many tens of thousands of Irish people who have suffered hardship at the hands of the UK state in recent decades Robert Storey probably has more reason than most to feel bitterness or hate. From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, starting at the age of just seventeen, he spent most of his adult life in British cells or prisons, substantial parts of it without trial, repeatedly released and rearrested in a farce of counter-insurgency law. Leading an existence which at times had more than a touch of the Hollywood thriller about it, he rose through the ranks of the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army in the 1980s and ’90s to become the organisation’s much-valued Director of Intelligence on the GHQ Staff. As one of the confidants of the Adams-McGuinness leadership he was to play a substantial role in moving the (Provisional) Republican movement, and (P)IRA in particular, towards a strategy of non-military struggle against the British occupation, culminating in the Belfast Agreement of 1998 and the eventual cessation of hostilities ordered by the Army Council in 2005. Since then he has remained committed to the Irish-British peace process, in particular the demobilisation of (P)IRA and the political development of Sinn Féin, something recognised in his selection as the chairperson of the party’s northern branch. So when he comments upon the calamitous events of recent weeks and months, as reported by the Irish Times, his words should be treated with the seriousness they deserve (though the opinions of one of his colleagues are a different matter).
“Senior republican Bobby Storey who was arrested in connection with the murder of Kevin McGuigan and then released unconditionally has stated that the Provisional IRA is stood down and gone away.
“There is no role for the IRA, the IRA is gone,” said Mr Storey, when speaking about the PSNI chief constable’s assessment that the IRA still exists, and that some of its members were involved in the murder of Belfast republican Mr McGuigan, although acting without the authority of the IRA leadership.
“I think the chief constable and other perspectives out there see this in terms of the IRA being the caterpillar that is still there. What I think is that it’s moved on, it’s become a butterfly, it’s flew away, it’s gone, it’s disappeared,” added Mr Storey.
At another stage of the press conference he said, “The IRA is gone. The IRA is stood down, they have put their arms beyond use, they have left the stage, they’re away and they are not coming back. So there is no current status of the IRA. There are no IRA members. The IRA has gone.”
Mr Storey and two other senior republicans, Brian Gillen and Eddie Copeland, were arrested last week in connection with Mr McGuigan’s murder and then released “unconditionally”.
Of his arrest and release last week Mr Storey said he has instructed his solicitor John Finucane to take legal proceedings against the chief constable.
“At no time during my detention did the police present a shred of evidence or intelligence, which in either my opinion or the opinion of my solicitor, warranted my arrest,” he said.
However when Bobby Storey claims that there is currently “…no IRA members. The IRA has gone“, most informed observers know this to be only partially true. Certainly the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army is no longer on a war footing. It has become, in all senses of the term, a peace-time army, and one set upon a long-term policy that will eventually lead to its own institutional demise. Yet it remains an army, however skeletal, however deliberately reduced in numbers, organisation and equipment. While some see this as a problem, an impediment to future political progress in the north-east, others see it as a guarantor of peace. By retaining some structure, even a nominal one, former volunteers, their families, friends and communities know that the guerilla movement remains as an option of last defence.
Crudely put, if the conflict were to reignite, if the militant edge of the British unionist minority or the British forces were to unleash violence and mayhem on the streets once again (as as we came close to witnessing in late 2012 to early 2013), then only one group would be in a position to organise the barricades – if not yet man them. That would not be Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Defence Forces Ireland, nor those under the authority of the national government in Dublin. They would no more protect, or seek to actively protect, the lives and property of Irish citizens under the mandate of the UK in 2018 or 2028 than they did in 1968 or 1978. Something that the northern nationalist community knows to its considerable cost. If criticism or condemnation need be laid at anyone’s door for the continued existence of a demobilised (P)IRA it is perhaps to be found closer to home, in the British apologisms of the Dublin news media, and in the past moral cowardice of governments from Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour.
Some may object to the pike being under the northern thatch, but no one has yet to come up with a convincing reason why it shouldn’t be.