Gerry Adams famously said “They haven’t gone away, you know”. Mary Lou McDonald now insists the Provisional IRA actually has gone away. When, exactly, did that happen? asks Donal O’Keeffe.

“The war is over and I run the party,” Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told reporters on Friday in the wake of Garda Commissioner Drew Harris’s comments linking Sinn Fein to the Provisional Army Council of the IRA.

Those of us old enough to remember the carnage of the Troubles might raise an eyebrow at Sinn Féin’s ongoing rewriting of history, retroactively legitimising as a ‘war’ a campaign of terrorism which targeted civilians and ‘legitimate targets’ alike, and often indiscriminately; but then most of us old enough to remember ‘the war’ and still possessed of a functioning conscience, know exactly what the Shinners are.

“The war is over, the IRA has gone away, and democracy is the order of the day and there’s no dispute around that,” Deputy McDonald said, which was big of her, really, democracy being apparently in fashion now. “Republicans are absolutely committed to democracy and to the peace process. The war is over and the IRA is off the stage.”

Is it, though? Has the IRA really gone away? If so, when, exactly, did that happen? Could Deputy McDonald put a precise date on it?

This is important, with Sinn Féin sitting on 25% of the vote and organising nationwide Trumpian rallies to whine that the big boys with whom they don’t want to play, won’t play with them.

Former Labour Senator Máiría Cahill, alleges she was – as a young teenager – raped by an IRA member and subjected to an IRA ‘kangaroo court’. She has been victim to a relentless online campaign of vilification and abuse by Sinn Féin supporters and trolls. Cahill wrote an article for last weekend’s Sunday Independent, in which she asked exactly when the IRA disbanded, and what became of its leaders.

In it, Cahill referred to the murder of Paul Quinn on October 20, 2007, nine years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The 21-year-old was lured to a County Monaghan barn, where three of his friends were held hostage. Ten or more men set upon Quinn, beating him for at least half-an-hour with metal bars and nail-studded cudgels, breaking every major bone in his body.

Around 6pm that evening, Paul Quinn was taken to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, where he died two hours later. An attending doctor told his parents there had been nothing left to fix. His mother Breege was unable to put Rosary beads in what was left of his hands.

Paul Quinn’s parents say Paul Quinn was murdered by members of the active service unit of the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade. They say their son’s sin was to have ‘floored’ the son of an IRA member in a pub row.

Conor Murphy MLA was trotted out at the time of the murder to blacken Quinn’s name, and to falsely accuse him of involvement in criminality. Murphy also claimed he had been assured by members of the IRA that it was not involved in the murder. Murphy is currently Stormont finance minister and, after 13 years, just before polling day two weeks ago, he ‘unreservedly’ withdrew his remarks. The Quinn family says Murphy needs to state clearly that Paul Quinn was not a criminal, and to go to the Gardaí and PSNI and name the members of the IRA he met in 2007.

Máiría Cahill lays out a timeline which challenges Mary Lou McDonald’s ‘They Have Gone Away You Know’ reassurances.

“We know … they still existed in 2007, when Paul Quinn was beaten to death, because Conor Murphy told the public he had ‘received reassurances’ that the IRA were not involved, and he obviously believed this …

“They hadn’t gone away in 2013 either, when Gerry Adams travelled with Austin Stack to meet an IRA representative who provided a statement saying that the organisation admitted responsibility for his father Brian’s murder,” writes Cahill.

“We know they were still kicking around in 2015 after the murder of Belfast man Kevin McGuigan, because the former Northern Irish Chief Constable George Hamilton, told us that although they were not on a ‘war footing’, the army council was still in existence then and individual IRA members were responsible.”

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said on Friday that the Gardaí share the PSNI view that the IRA Provisional Army Council oversees both the IRA and Sinn Fein. That view is based on a 2015 joint PSNI/MI5 assessment, which the PSNI says remains operative, and which stated that IRA structures remain in existence ‘in a much-reduced form’, that the organisation is not recruiting, and that its leadership is committed to achieving a united Ireland through peaceful means.

The report stated that it was the belief of IRA members that the army council oversees both the IRA and Sinn Féin ‘with an overarching strategy’, one with ‘a wholly political focus’.

It’s often seemed apparent that Sinn Féin answers to what it might consider a higher authority. Sam McBride’s excellent book on the ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal, Burned, reveals that Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, Sinn Féin’s finance minister in the previous Stormont assembly, was running government business by unelected senior former IRA members.

If Sinn Féin were in power in what Sinn Féin members insist on calling ‘the South of Ireland’, would decisions in ‘the 26 counties’ similarly have to meet the approval of unelected hard men?

You might remember too the curious incident in August 2018 when Mary Lou McDonald – a whip-smart political operator who knows politics in what David Cullinane calls ‘The Free State’ inside-out – made the entirely sensible statement that this was not the time for a border poll on Irish unity. Within 24 hours she had made a humiliating u-turn, one which gave every impression of having been dictated from on high. Characteristically, anyone who dared suggest McDonald might not be in complete charge of her party got a prompt slap of the sexism card.

McDonald once described as ‘a good republican’ Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, the alleged former IRA chief of staff, alleged fuel-smuggling kingpin, and convicted tax evader. A 2013 cross-border raid by Gardai and PSNI officers discovered, close to Murphy’s home, a large, purpose-built torture chamber. Good republican indeed.

The simple fact is that Mary Lou McDonald is one of the ablest politicians on this island. She wouldn’t be known for deferring to anyone. It’s odd that while she can refer to it in the hazy past-tense, she has yet to announce the definitive disbanding of the Provisional IRA. When did it happen? Why wasn’t there a parade?

Like people with good jobs proclaiming on Twitter ‘I’m not a Sinn Féin supporter but’, there’s a narrative to be maintained, and McDonald performs skilfully the tortuous task of praising and defending the Provos while selling the party line that they’ve been put verifiably beyond use.

But then it’s easy for Mary Lou to say ‘The IRA have gone away’. After all, she has long-since pinned the entirety of her credibility on her stated belief that Gerry Adams was never in the IRA.