It's a long time since this column has commented on the North and the IRA, but they are back on the agenda this week because of the temporary collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly's power-sharing administration led by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Loyalists and Sinn Fein Republicans.
I use the word temporary because you can take it from me there is no way this collapse is going to be permanent. If that were to happen the Northern politicians would be putting themselves out of a job.
And, despite all the posturing by the Unionists, those boys (and girls) are too fond of their pay checks and expenses and the status of being in power to allow the situation to continue.
But even the possibility has both the Irish and British governments seriously concerned. If the power-sharing collapse were to be permanent it could see the start of a slide back to the bad old days of murder and mayhem on the streets of the North. That is the awful scenario that everyone wants to avoid.
The issue that has caused this problem, as you probably know, is the question of whether the IRA still exists and operates. It follows the murder of a leading Belfast IRA man Kevin McGuigan a few weeks ago and a statement by the police in the North that they believe other members of the IRA were responsible.
Since the IRA are supposed to have disarmed and disbanded, this statement was seriously embarrassing for the two governments. It also presented an opportunity for the Official Unionist Party (OUP) to outflank the DUP, the party that stole its clothes.
The sole OUP member of the administration resigned, saying Sinn Fein could not be trusted. Put into this awkward situation, the DUP reacted by withdrawing from the government in the North, demanding that Sinn Fein clarify the position of the IRA.
In spite of the repeated assertions by Sinn Fein leaders that the IRA is gone, finished, etc., etc., the police in the North clearly think otherwise. Which is a problem because it directly contradicts not just what Sinn Fein has been saying, but what the two governments have been saying as well for years. This See No Evil official policy was necessary so that Sinn Fein could be accepted as part of the government in the North.
In reality, for most people in the North the question of whether the IRA still exists and operates is akin to asking whether the Pope is a Catholic. Of course it does, even if the way it operates since the 1994 ceasefire (or cessation as Republicans prefer) is different these days.
And the murder of McGuigan, because he had murdered another leading Belfast IRA man, Jock Davison, six months ago, is part of the wider story of why "they haven't gone away, you know," as Gerry Adams said about the IRA back in 1995.
After the ceasefire in 1994, McGuigan and Davison became the hit men in an organization set up by the IRA called Direct Action Against Drugs (DAAD) which murdered at least a dozen small time dealers and petty criminals in the North in the years that followed. It was one of the IRA's ways of keeping active, extorting money and ensuring that people in Nationalist areas knew they were still around.
But the two gunmen fell out over a decade ago. McGuigan's undisciplined and extremely violent behavior was too much even for the IRA and led to them doing a punishment shooting on him at the time. He blamed Davison for turning senior IRA figures against him. It took him until earlier this year to take his revenge.
Neither of these gents were the kind of people you would want to have an argument with. McGuigan was a borderline psycho who even in recent years terrified those who lived near him. Davison's bloody record included ordering the knifing of Robert McCartney after a confrontation in a bar in Belfast in 2005, a murder that made headlines in the U.S. thanks to the campaign by his sisters.
What the murders of both Davison and McGuigan illustrate is that former members of the IRA are still active and still have guns. And we didn't need the police in the North, the PSNI, to tell us that. The record of the past 10 years, despite the constructive ambiguity of the two governments and their determination to look the other way, makes it clear.
Implicit in the agreement between the governments and Sinn Fein/the IRA in the wake of the ceasefire was an understanding that as long as the IRA stopped killing soldiers and police and kept its activities to its normal fundraising business (ordinary criminality) or so-called internal discipline (keeping people in Nationalist areas in line) the pretense that the IRA had completely vanished would be maintained.
Of course such a vanishing trick was never going to happen. IRA activists who were used to a certain status and a lifestyle which did not involve working for a living were never going to become ordinary Joes overnight.
Some of them got into "community work" which gave them continued status in their areas. Others concentrated on the criminal activities that were always part of IRA business. At senior level, occasional informal meetings replaced the more formal structures that were part of IRA management.
Since the ceasefire in the 1990s, the IRA (or if you prefer former members of the IRA) have been involved in an estimated 40 murders and widespread criminality run along Mafia lines. This network of criminality includes fuel laundering, international tobacco smuggling, cross-border smuggling, bogus booze and various services (including protection) that are together estimated to be worth hundreds of millions every year.
It's not known how much, if any, of this finds its way into supporting the political side of the movement. But it has made a few senior former IRA men very wealthy and provided easy money for those further down the IRA chain, much like in Mafia families.
All former IRA members have learned the new script about how the guns were destroyed and the organization no longer exists, and these days it's all about politics. But anyone who thinks this means you can ignore instructions from the hard men or fail to treat them with sufficient respect is very naive.
McCartney found that out after he annoyed Davison and Davison made a cutting motion across his throat indicating to the Republican mob in the bar what he wanted done.
There have been other examples of horrific violence meted out to those who have been slow to bend the knee, like the 2007 savage killing in a shed of young Paul Quinn, beaten to death with iron bars and nail-studded bats by members of the South Armagh IRA. And other IRA killings like the 2005 shooting of Joseph Rafferty in Dublin. Both of these murders were preceded by arguments with people associated with the IRA.
The stuff the IRA has been involved in since the ceasefire was announced in 1994 includes the Northern Bank robbery in 2004 (the biggest ever anywhere in the world) among many other cash raising activities. These days such operations are concentrated around the border but appear elsewhere as well.
There is no doubt that the peace process has paid huge dividends and transformed Ireland and Sinn Fein played a lead role in that, as we all recognize.
But it is also true that Sinn Fein has failed to adequately deal with the aftermath of the IRA, and with the continuing attitude among former members that they remain beyond the law and can commit crimes and intimidate ordinary people as they always did in the past.
One can see and feel this intimidation not just in major incidents like murders. It also manifests itself in more subtle ways, and not just in the North. Which leads me to this story.
There's a pub on the North Side of Dublin close to Croke Park which is popular on match days with fans of Gaelic football. It also happens to be a regular drinking haunt for a small group of Republicans who live in the area.
Some of these would be Sinn Fein members and some would be former IRA "activists" and, as you know, these two categories tend to overlap. Nothing strange about that. Getting gunmen to put down their weapons and take up politics instead was what the peace process was all about, after all.
A few months ago, a local man who occasionally drinks in the pub had one pint too many and made some loud comments about the murder of Jean McConville. I'm not sure if these comments were aimed in the direction of the group of Republicans in the bar but a few days later someone called to his house.
The caller – a stranger to the man – offered some advice. The caller told him that in future, for his own good, he should be more careful about what he was saying in the pub. The message was clear. As was the implied threat.
They haven't gone away, you know. It's probably going to take another generation for that to happen.
In the meantime Sinn Fein should be doing a lot more than just repeating bland statements denouncing "criminals."