NS Profile - Sinn Fein

There is nothing like it in the western political universe. Shinners don't lunch with journalists, d

To the unionists, it should be the final nail in the republican political coffin. The TV pictures, the Swat-geared policemen running up Stormont's marble corridors into the Sinn Fein/IRA "den of spies", are incontrovertible proof that Irish republicanism is intrinsically a terrorist crusade that can never be democratically house-trained.

Northern Ireland's anguished peace process is heading for the rocks. The Assembly, the cornerstone of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, is falling and cannot be assisted back to its shaky feet. And is Sinn Fein, caught with its political pants down, really a democratic party? Or is it just a terrorist mouthpiece for the IRA's army council? The true answer to both questions is - not really.

To understand the answer, you have to understand the origins of the "Republican Movement". In essence the "bold Fenian men" of 1916 saw themselves as gunmen first and politicians second. Their foundations lay not in class solidarity and trade unionism, but in getting guns to shoot British soldiers dead and thus remove the "alien" English presence from Irish soil. Padraig Pearse, the near-fascist romantic poet who led the 1916 Easter Rising, spent days designing the buttons and lapels on his make-believe general's uniform. He wanted to be taken seriously as a soldier.

Even after the IRA was defeated by fellow Irishmen in the 1921 civil war, this cult of militarism prevailed among the dwindling band of fanatics who kept the republican flame alight. IRA men were anti-politics, conspiratorial, and utterly contemptuous of the democratic will of the befuddled masses who settled down to live with partition for the next 60 years. Even in the 1980s, the IRA leadership was still claiming that the clandestine seven-man IRA army council was the de jure authority of the Irish people. Elections, all 70 years of them, didn't count. The only real issue facing the Irish people was partition.

Politically such claims were nonsense, but they were important in a movement, a faith, that saw itself fighting for a Holy Grail, the Mythic Republic of Pearse. Irish republicanism is a rigid, millenarian creed.

In 1969, the Troubles broke out again and a new generation of republican leaders emerged. Gerry Adams, born into an old republican family, won a reputation in Belfast as an organiser and strategist, and swiftly moved up the ranks. In Derry, Martin McGuinness, a former butcher's assistant, assumed power as a natural leader. Both men, still in their early twenties, were so important to the IRA, and the peace process, that they were flown by the RAF to London in 1972 for secret peace talks with Ted Heath's government.

On television today, Adams and McGuinness, in their polish and sophistry, may look like any other political figures. In reality, there are no creatures like them in the western political universe. Both men are survivors, not just of fighting their internal political rivals, but also of their own military onslaught against the British state. Their political testing ground was not the "pot" debates of the National Union of Students but the bloody chaos of Ulster in the 1970s.

Both men aimed to overthrow British rule. Bombs, murders, failed assassination attempts were a daily occurrence. In Derry, more than 40 IRA volunteers have been killed violently; Martin McGuinness would have known all of them and was certainly on some of the operations where some of those IRA men died. The state, in the form of the British army, made many determined attempts to kill both Adams and McGuinness. Adams has claimed that he was physically tortured by British interrogators. For the past 30 years, both Adams and McGuinness have been leading players in the tiny, hermetic republican leadership that controls the IRA's war machine.

In theory, Sinn Fein is the political wing of the IRA. In reality, the leadership is one and the same. The "army" is pre-eminent but it is not just a simple equation of who is on the IRA army council; Adams does not need to be on the IRA army council because he dominates it already. But four elected Sinn Fein officials, Adams, McGuinness, Pat Doherty, MP for West Tyrone, and the former convicted gun-runner Martin Ferris, a TD in North Kerry, are all believed to be key army council figures.

So it is hardly surprising that Sinn Fein policy procedures are entirely opaque. "Shinners" don't lunch with journalists, don't chat, and do not, unless there is a good reason, leak. Democratic accountability remains a notion utterly alien to Sinn Fein, hence members' ability to protest for their democratic rights, but then allow the order to be given for the murder of Eamon Collins, the writer and IRA heretic who testified against Thomas "Slab" Murphy, another IRA council member, in a 1998 Dublin libel trial.

The political model is the democratic centralism of the Soviet era. The word is passed down like a religious edict from above. A bit, some jokers might say, like new Labour - only better.

It may seem incredible, but the current peace strategy is the fruit of shifts in republican ideology from the late Seventies. Confronted by the collapse of IRA morale during the abortive 1975 ceasefire, an imprisoned Adams conceived of a new military/political strategy that would save the IRA from the futile terrorist cul-de-sac of its own creation.

The idea was simple: get involved in politics. But weaning a movement that was constructed on the gun into the electoral arena took years of Stalinist-type intrigue and ideological nit-picking to destroy internal enemies. Turning up the heat with big bombs in London, to reassure the faithful, was just another weapon in the Adams tool kit.

One veteran Irish journalist recently described Adams as a political genius. The accolade is well earned. Adams, under the noses of the followers, has subverted the IRA's own founding myths, overturned its very raison d'etre as the gunman's party, and brought the movement across the electoral threshold. The goal hasn't changed - a united Ireland - but Adams has brought his fellow republicans to participate in the very institutions they spent their young lives trying to destroy.

From 1983 onward, the movement took on a substantial electoral role, opening advice centres, filling in benefit forms on behalf of grateful constituents, and wooing the electorate to get their vote out. Elections were just another tactic in the Long War; but walking the democratic road, and being forced to respond to the electorate's bread-and-butter concerns, has changed Sinn Fein. The party now has four MPs, five TDs, 18 Assembly members and 170 councillors all told in the North and the republic. A lot of that political activity, particularly in the republic, has nothing to do with the theology of a united Ireland and everything to do with the drains.

In the past, the leadership filled the pages of their political weekly, An Phoblacht, with "war news", reports of heroic IRA activities in the North, and pages of death columns recalling the noble sacrifice of IRA volunteers. These days the paper is filled with reports about waste incinerators and anti-fluoridisation campaigns. The deaths column, once required reading, has dropped in point size and shrunk in length.

If you ignore the theology on Ireland, Sinn Fein's political position is similar to the unreconstructed Labour Party of the Eighties. It is left-wing and social-democratic, with a grudging acceptance of capitalism. The party is still on the outside, still free from the taint of compromise and real political power.

The leadership naturally wants that to change even if they have to drop the "socialism" bit of the agenda. The impact of legitimate American fundraising dollars and the invitations to the Clinton White House profoundly altered the style of the Adams leadership. Although An Phoblacht still carries "solidarity reports" of various third world anti-US imperialist struggles, republicans were aghast at the colder atmosphere under George W Bush and with being lumped in with 11 September terrorists. In a transparent political move, Sinn Fein donated the proceeds of its last annual New York fundraising dinner to the families of firefighters to head off such criticism.

In the past, the Shinners would have shrugged off the fuss over the "Colombia Three", the IRA men caught assisting Farc insurgents. Today, it is a profound embarrassment.

Adams hopes that the drive for peace will achieve what 30 years of IRA bombs failed to do - get the Brits out. He hopes to inherit power in Ireland by bringing the dream of Irish unity closer, just as his predecessor Eamon de Valera did. Under that sweeping plan, the IRA will one day fade away because it no longer needs to exist. And one day, too, Sinn Fein will just be like any other electoral party in Ireland. In fact, it will be the same day that Sinn Fein comes to power and Gerry Adams is declared Taoiseach.

Kevin Toolis is the author of Rebel Hearts: journeys within the IRA's soul (Picador, £7.99). E-mail: kevintoolis@hotmail.com