So the IRA still exists. Well, knock me down with a feather.
The only thing surprising about the two reports issued last week into the status of paramilitary activity here – one in the north and one in the south – was that anyone was surprised by what they said.
Even so, to see it so baldly stated in the report of the independent panel in the north has made many people in the south think again not just about the IRA but about Sinn Fein, particularly with the election on the way here.
There has been a growing tendency here in the past few years, particularly among younger voters, to accept Sinn Fein as just another political party, no different from other parties in the Dail. Last week's report in the North has at the very least inserted a significant level of doubt into that creeping acceptance.
The report in the north was commissioned by the Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers in the wake of the public statement from the chief of police there that they believed the IRA was responsible for the murder of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan in Belfast in August.
The report says the IRA remains in existence, although in a much reduced form, and is still controlled by the Provisional Army Council. It says that some of the IRA's departments remain active and that, despite decommissioning, the organization still has access to weapons.
Even more embarrassing for Gerry Adams and his Sinn Fein party colleagues, it stated that the Provisional Army Council “oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy," although it did add that this strategy has a wholly political focus.
This was particularly disturbing since it suggests that Sinn Fein is still subservient to the Army Council and that the Army Council still has the primary role in setting the political and policy goals of Sinn Fein.
This was tempered by other lines in the report in which the authors said, “It is our firm assessment that PIRA’s leadership remains committed to the peace process and its aim of achieving a united Ireland by political means. The group is not involved in targeting or conducting terrorist attacks against the (British) state or its representatives."
The report in the North also stated that the Loyalist paramilitary groups still exist and are still active. But here in the south, for obvious reasons, most interest is in what it said not just about the IRA but about Sinn Fein.
The report from the Gardai in the south also issued last week was more nuanced and less explicit about the current state of the IRA and paramilitary activity. It said that the IRA still exists but that it is not organized in the way it used to be.
It said there is no evidence that the Army Council is functioning in this jurisdiction. It also said there is "clear evidence that a significant number of persons who have been associated with the PIRA remain criminally active, particularly in organized crime, and continue to associate together."
The slight difference in tone in the report by the Gardai is not surprising since most of the activity being considered takes place north of the border. It may also be influenced by the See No Evil stance at official level here ever since the ceasefire 20 years ago, a stance designed to encourage Republicans into an exclusively political future.
This determination to turn a blind eye was evident last February when the Garda commissioner sent a letter to a Sinn Fein member of the Dail which stated that she had "no information to show that the IRA still maintained its military structure." The Sinn Fein deputy had requested the letter to respond to a newspaper article at the time about IRA organized criminality and of course Sinn Fein publicized the letter widely.
Sending it was far from clever, since it offered at best a partial assessment of the status of the IRA. The attitude of the commissioner has toughened somewhat since then, as is evident in the report issued last week. Like in the north, the minister for justice here had ordered a report in the wake of the murder of Kevin McGuigan in August.
The forthcoming election here is also clearly a factor, since the two reports enable the mainstream parties to tar Sinn Fein with the IRA brush. That said, there are serious questions to be answered in the wake of the two reports.
Sinn Fein has adopted a stance of jeering ridicule in response, saying that this is all nonsense, contrived to embarrass them in the run-up to the election. But that is just not good enough.
The two reports were prompted by the McGuigan murder, not by the timing of the election here. The fact is we are now 21 years into the ceasefire and it is 10 years since the IRA made the historic statement that the war is over.
So why, after so much time, is the IRA continuing to exist? Such an organization has no place or role in a democracy.
It has been suggested that one reason the IRA still exists is to deal with the violent dissident Republican groups that have emerged since the ceasefire. The IRA “departments” referred to by the Northern Secretary are active in intelligence gathering, security and enforcement, aimed mainly at the dissidents but also at anyone else who ignores IRA diktats.
But dealing with the dissidents is the role of the police, the courts, and the prisons, north and south. It should not be the business of a private army with its own system of summary “justice” and punishment. That is not acceptable in a democracy.
The other unacceptable aspect of all this is the ongoing involvement of former IRA figures in serious criminality, particularly in the border corridor from south Armagh to north Louth, where two gardai have been murdered by Republican criminals over the past two years. These extensive criminal operations involving diesel-washing, smuggling, extortion, etc. generate tens of millions each year, money that may once have gone to "the cause" but now supports the lifestyle of the Mafia-type IRA gangs who run them. It is a deeply corrupting and threatening part of life in the border area and beyond.
Why has this not been eradicated 17 years after the Good Friday Agreement introduced a new level of cooperation between north and south? It persists because of the failure of the both governments to put enough resources into tackling the problem.
And that is probably a result of the "constructive ambiguity" that both sides practiced; as long as "the war" remained over, a blind eye was turned to so-called ordinary criminality by former paramilitaries.
There has been a tendency here in the south to view the ongoing existence of the IRA as a Northern problem. But that is a dangerous position to adopt, as we have seen with the murder of the two gardai in Louth.
One member of the current Army Council is said to be from South Armagh, where much of the criminality originates. Anyone who is foolish enough to get in the way of, or ignore instructions from, the IRA gangs in the area can pay a heavy price. And this does not happen just in the north.
Paul Quinn, a 21-year-old who had a confrontation with the son of a South Armagh IRA leader in 2007, is an example. He was beaten to death in a savage attack using iron bars and nail-studded bats by an IRA gang in a shed, not in the north but in Co. Monaghan in the south, a few miles from the border.
This is far from the only example of violence and intimidation by Republican heavies in the south in recent years. In the Dublin area there have been numerous examples of IRA involvement in the drugs trade and tobacco-smuggling, frequently enforced at gun point. People in the Border areas in particular have been cowed into submission and silence about what they know is going on.
But the fear is much wider than that, and this is not something that should be tolerated in any democracy.
Two things are clear in the wake of these reports. Both governments need to join in a major new cross-border drive to finally clean up the area.
And the IRA, 21 years after the ceasefire, needs to finally decide that enough is enough and give it all up. You are either part of democracy or you are not.