PHILADELPHIA - The Irish Republican Army has turned from fighting for a political cause to barroom brawls and bank heists. And Sinn Fein, whose leaders have been "outed" as IRA leaders, can't escape responsibility for IRA crimes.
IRA "hard men" are still reluctant to give up their arms in a verifiable fashion, despite the 1998 Good Friday peace accord between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The IRA is accused of robbing a bank in the Irish Republic of $50 million in December. Other IRA members used knives to slit the throat of Catholic Robert McCartney in a Belfast bar Jan. 30.
To paraphrase Rep. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, a longtime Sinn Fein supporter, the Irish republican movement seems to have morphed into the mob.
Time was when residents of Belfast's Catholic slums were grateful to the IRA, which fought for Catholic rights and defended them against vicious attacks by Protestant militias. But times have changed.
The Good Friday accords are temporarily frozen, but sectarian violence in Northern Ireland has halted. The economy is booming, and unemployment has dropped to 4.7 percent as investment rises. There are excellent prospects for stronger economic and political ties between Northern Ireland and the prosperous Irish Republic. People don't want to live in the past.
So when the five sisters of the murdered Robert McCartney decided to break the code of silence Catholics normally observe about IRA activities, they got support in their community. The sisters called on the IRA to stop protecting the killers. The White House invited the McCartneys to the St. Paddy's Day party instead of Northern Irish political leaders. Even Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has praised the women.
But none of the 70 witnesses to the murder has gone to the police.
The IRA did ask the McCartneys whether they wanted the organization to handle the matter. It offered to shoot the offenders. The sisters angrily declined. That such an offer could be made, in this day and age, in Europe, shows how out of touch the IRA has become.
Despite a bitter history of British repression, of discrimination by Protestants against Catholics in Northern Ireland, the age of bullets has been replaced by the time of ballots. Catholics now have a legitimate way to address grievances and seek power. Sinn Fein has gained strength as a political party in Northern Ireland and in the republic. In the words of Mitchell B. Reiss, Mr. Bush's special envoy on Northern Ireland: "There's no place in 2005 in Europe for a private army associated with a political party."
Mr. Reiss called for the IRA to disband. But what is most important is whether the IRA gives up its guns.
"It doesn't matter [if the IRA is disbanded] if it doesn't carry out criminal activity," says Paul Murphy, British secretary of state for Northern Ireland.
Several thousand miles away, the militant Lebanese group Hezbollah is facing a similar choice. As it showed by turning out 500,000 demonstrators, Hezbollah is a major political force in Lebanon. But the group, which has carried out terrorist operations in the past, insists on keeping its armed militia, despite U.S. and United Nations calls for it to disarm.
Surely, Northern Ireland is more politically advanced than Lebanon. Surely old republican fighters can find employment other than becoming a new Mafia. It's time for Sinn Fein and its supporters to demand that the IRA become the Old Comrades Association and pension off its members.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.