Photo: Drew Harris, Commissioner of the National Garda Police Force
Ireland’s police chief has waded into a bitter post-election row over Sinn Féin’s links with the Irish Republican Army, saying the nationalist party is overseen by the “army council” of the paramilitary group. The intervention of Drew Harris, commissioner of the national Garda police force, comes after Sinn Féin shocked traditional ruling parties by winning the popular vote and the second-largest number of seats in the February 8 general election.
Mr Harris on Friday said his view of the IRA’s role was in line with the conclusions of other police forces and security services. “I am aware of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and British [MI5] security service’s assessment and we do not differ from that view,” said Mr Harris, who was deputy chief of the PSNI before taking command of the Garda in 2018.
Mr Harris, whose father was a Northern Ireland police officer murdered by the IRA, is the first officer to cross the border to lead the Garda. Sinn Féin has been a fringe party for decades because of its support for the IRA’s violent campaign to force Britain to leave Northern Ireland before the 1998 Good Friday peace deal. The party has faced persistent political attacks over IRA links but on Friday dismissed as “nonsense” the assessment that it was overseen by the IRA’s army council.
Mary Lou McDonald, Sinn Féin’s leader, has insisted the IRA’s war is over as she tries to form a leftist government, despite falling short of the seats needed for a majority in the Dáil assembly. Responding on Friday to Mr Harris’s remarks, Ms McDonald insisted the IRA “does not” exist “so far as I am aware”. “I don’t answer for the IRA, I’m not a spokesperson for the IRA. I’m the leader of Sinn Féin and I’m telling you the war is over,” she said.
Outgoing prime minister Leo Varadkar formally resigned on Thursday but will continue in office as taoiseach alongside his ministers as efforts intensify to patch together a new coalition within the fragmented Dáil.
Both Mr Varadkar’s Fine Gael party, which came third, and the opposition Fianna Fáil, which won the most seats, have ruled out coalition with Sinn Féin because of its paramilitary connections and differences over its leftist economic policies. Ms McDonald lacked a majority when she won more Dáil votes on Thursday for the position of prime minister than Mr Varadkar and Micheál Martin, Fianna Fáil’s leader.
Asked about Mr Harris’s intervention, a Sinn Féin spokesman said: “It will be lost on no one that this nonsense is being repeated again the day after a vote in the Dáil where, for the first time ever, someone other than a Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael nominee won the most votes for taoiseach.” In a 2015 report for the UK government, the PSNI and MI5 concluded IRA members believed the army council “oversees” both the IRA and Sinn Féin with an “overarching strategy”, based on current intelligence, historical materials and analysis.
The PSNI has said recently that the assessment remains true. “We judge this strategy has a wholly political focus,” the 2015 report said. IRA members “have been directed to actively support Sinn Féin within the community including activity like electioneering and leafleting”. Mr Harris said he was a public servant and would work with whatever government is formed in response to questions on whether he would have concerns over Sinn Féin’s taking a place in government.
The taoiseach seized on the comments to put pressure on Sinn Féin to renounce the IRA. “Why doesn’t McDonald disband the army council and the [Provisional IRA] or, if she cannot, repudiate them and sever all links and do so publicly and unequivocally?” Mr Varadkar said at a summit in Brussels. Ms McDonald insisted during the election that as party leader she does not take instructions from anyone.