There Is Nothing like It in the Western Political Universe. Shinners Don't Lunch with Journalists, Don't Chat, Don't Leak. (Profile Sinn Fein)

Article excerpt

To the unionists, it should be the final nail in the republican political coffin. The TV pictures, the Swatgeared policemen running up Stormont's marble corridors into the Sinn Fein/IRA "den of spies", are incontrovertible proof that Irish republicanism is intrinsically a terrorist crusade that can never be democratically house-trained.

Northern Ireland's anguished peace process is heading for the rocks. The Assembly, the cornerstone of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, is falling and cannot be assisted back to its shaky feet. And is Sinn Fein, caught with its political pants down, really a democratic party? Or is it just a terrorist mouthpiece for the IRA's army council? The true answer to both questions is -- not really.

To understand the answer, you have to understand the origins of the "Republican Movement". In essence the "bold Fenian men of 1916 saw themselves as gunmen first and politicians second. Their foundations lay not in class solidarity and trade unionism, but in getting guns to shoot British soldiers dead and thus remove the "alien" English presence from Irish soil. Padraig Pearse, the near-fascist romantic poet who led the 1916 Easter Rising, spent days designing the buttons and lapels on his make-believe general's uniform. He wanted to be taken seriously as a soldier.

Even after the IRA was defeated by fellow Irishmen in the 1921 civil war, this cult of militarism prevailed among the dwindling band of fanatics who kept the republican flame alight. IRA men were anti-politics, conspiratorial, and utterly contemptuous of the democratic will of the befuddled masses who settled down to live with partition for the next 60 years. Even in the 1980s, the IRA leadership was still claiming that the clandestine seven-man IRA army council was the de jure authority of the Irish people. Elections, all 70 years of them, didn't count. The only real issue facing the Irish people was partition.

Politically such claims were nonsense, but they were important in a movement, a faith, that saw itself fighting for a Holy Grail, the Mythic Republic of Pearse. Irish republicanism is a rigid, millenarian creed.

In 1969, the Troubles broke out again and a new generation of republican leaders emerged. Gerry Adams, born into an old republican family, won a reputation in Belfast as an organiser and strategist, and swiftly moved up the ranks. In Derry, Martin McGuinness, a former butcher's assistant, assumed power as a natural leader. Both men, still in their early twenties, were so important to the IRA, and the peace process, that they were flown by the RAF to London in 1972 for secret peace talks with Ted Heath's government.

On television today, Adams and McGuinness, in their polish and sophistry, may look like any other political figures. In reality, there are no creatures like them in the western political universe. Both men are survivors, not lust of fighting their internal political rivals, but also of their own military onslaught against the British state. Their political testing ground was not the "pot" debates of the National Union of Students but the bloody chaos of Ulster in the 1970s.

Both men aimed to overthrow British rule. Bombs, murders, failed assassination attempts were a daily occurrence. In Derry, more than 40 IRA volunteers have been killed violently; Martin McGuinness would have known all of them and was certainly on some of the operations where some of those IRA men died. The state, in the form of the British army, made many determined attempts to kill both Adams and McGuinness. Adams has claimed that he was physically tortured by British interrogators. For the past 30 years, both Adams and McGuinness have been leading players in the tiny, hermetic republican leadership that controls the IRA's war machine.

In theory, Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA. In reality, the leadership is one and the same. …