PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton’s weekend attempt to build a bridge over troubled waters in the North is best described as a vintage brand peace process statement: a crafted fudge meant to please the taste buds of all.
Hamilton in declining to go the extra mile and say the IRA no longer existed opted to be risqué rather than ridiculous. Denying its existence outright would jar too clumsily with the common sense of just about every observer of the scene who have long assumed the IRA has remained intact even if they disagree about its purpose. The solution: because the IRA continues to function the unfortunate arbiter had to split the difference and present an IRA that everybody can live with ... except those arguably whom the IRA decides shall live no more.
Peace process statements are not renowned for their accuracy but for their usefulness to the peace process. In the spirit of the peace process George Hamilton stepped up to the plate and ably demonstrated that he is a chief constable fit for purpose, peace process purpose. Cui Bono? Not everybody in equal measure, that's for sure.
Crisis induced statements, like the Chief Constable's, often conceal more than they reveal, tending to be premised on a specific fiction of the peace process: that the peace and the process are one and the same; that the peace process is solely a universally shared framework, societally ordained for the purpose of delivering a peace dividend, equitably beneficial to all. These statements remain oblivious to the peace process in its other dimension: a very particularist political strategy designed to enhance the power of one party on the island to the detriment of all others. The peace process in this configuration is not primarily driven by the desire to achieve peace for all but to secure power for some.
In this perspective the strategic use of peace is an indispensable plank in the process of achieving power and without which banishment to the political margins beckons. That affords peace an essentially instrumentalist rather than an intrinsic worth. While tactically crucial it nevertheless claims no monopoly on Provisional options. When George Hamilton says he believes the Provisional IRA exists to further the peace process, he is right: the peace process as a political strategy meant to empower Sinn Fein but which demonstrably has never been an exclusively peaceful strategy. That’s the truly ominous bit George leaves out.
Hamilton had to plug the dyke breach caused by PSNI Superintendent Kevin Geddes who had let the cat out of the bag with his statement last Thursday that current IRA members inter alia had been responsible for the murder of Kevin McGuigan. Geddes opened the floodgates to a largely feigned indignation. Pretending not to know features big in the peace process. It fell to George Hamilton to put the feral stray back in the bag. To the extent that he was not entirely successful he sought to show it as a cuddly kitten with neither teeth nor claws that are going to harm anybody. Yeah, it is still alive, looks much the same here and there, but sure it’s neutered.
It is fully understandable that George Hamilton will want to preserve as much of the peace as possible. He doesn’t want his officers or others targeted consequence of slippage. It goes with the mucky turf that the short straw should have been pushed his way by the politicians eager to have him get them off the hook of their own fist shaking and bombastic sabre rattling. Even if it was in response to the existence of an entity they knew full well had never gone away and about which they had long remained silent. Hamilton understood intuitively that on his own head be it were he to issue any statement not helpful to the peace process.
George Hamilton is not eagerly giving the green light to the type of murderous activity that claimed the life of Kevin McGuigan. He is transmitting very clearly that his force will pursue, arrest and place before the courts individuals against whom it procures evidence of involvement in murder. What is transmitted however is not always what is received and he must know this but has taken the risk all the same for the peace process. Decoded by the windtalkers of the peace process his message will be received as meaning the IRA has room to manoeuvre, can kill with plausible deniability, that its individual members but not the organisation will be pursued, charges of directing terrorism and IRA membership will be an anachronism reserved exclusively for IRAs other than the Provisional, and there will be no political sanction for Sinn Fein. Happy days for peace processing.
Ultimately there is a strong logic informing the Hamilton formula. It amounts to a plausible mechanism for firewalling the peace process and the power sharing institutions from the destabilising effects of violence, now described by all as criminal rather than political. It was ongoing IRA activity that made the Trimble led executive so precarious and which Peter Robinson was so determined to overcome given that he knew the Provisional IRA continued to function when he entered government with its erstwhile chief of staff as his deputy.
The upshot is this: so long as the Provisional IRA can emulate the Cosa Nostra of Sicily where the Mafiosi who belonged to it referred to it as “our thing” but denied the existence of any organisation and ridiculed, smeared or murdered those who thought otherwise, the show can stay on the road ... to perdition.