Now, it’s true that Gerry can’t be blamed for the loss of the hugely popular Michael Ferguson of Twinbrook, who inconsiderately went and died of cancer a while back. And three others have surfaced, issued proclamations of loyalty and then gone to ground. Tommy O’Reilly says he wants to pursue his political ambitions on the big stage of, er, Fermanagh council, while North Belfast’s Kathy Stanton, a rising star in the recent past, wants to spend more time with her young family. Another rising star, Philip McGuigan of North Antrim, has just announced that he will be standing down from Stormont, though he will remain on Ballymoney council, and given the obligatory vote of confidence to Gerry.
If this doesn’t look unfortunate, deselecting two out of three MLAs in Newry/Armagh begins to look careless. Pat O’Rawe has been quiet, but her colleague Davy Hyland – who was deselected in his absence and informed by text message – is hopping mad, and has said so vocally over the last lot of days. Davy has resigned his party membership and stuck the boot into Gerry over policing. Some Gerryite apparatchiks are claiming he didn’t raise any disagreements before, but the Provo politburo’s habit of lying to its own supporters surely invalidates that complaint even if it’s true. Now Mid-Ulster MLA Geraldine Dougan has entered the fray, threatening to resign her party membership if the upcoming Ard Fheis endorses the Continuity RUC. Both Dougan and Hyland are openly canvassing solo runs at the election.
It is significant, I think, that none of these people have shown hints of dissidence in the past – rather, they are middle-of-the-road Northern republicans. Gerry should know by now that you can’t fool all the people all the time, and policing is a lightning-rod issue that it’s almost impossible to dissemble on. It also strikes at the Defenderist roots of the Northern Provos and raises hackles among people who couldn’t care less about abstentionism or the Second Dáil.
Gerry’s trouble probably won’t end here. There have been consistent reports recently of discontent among the Provo rank and file, both in the party and what remains of the army, although Belfast and Derry City are almost ostentatiously loyal. Most of the rumbling is coming from areas like East Tyrone and South Derry, places with a history of independence and long – and bruising – experience of the Lower Falls Mafia’s organisational practices. Republicans will be aware of the fate of the Antrim cumann, where a whole layer of activists were got rid of and a bunch of heavies from Belfast sent up there to take over. South Antrim’s inability to turn up a local candidate – with first North Belfast’s Martin Meehan and now Derry’s Mitchel McLaughlin being parachuted in – is directly related to this MO. Rural resentment at the Belfast politburo could easily find an expression over policing.
Hopefully it will. The Provo leadership has benefited a great deal from appeals to unity, invocation of military discipline and just outright fear. If people like Geraldine Dougan and Davy Hyland make good on their threats to stand as independents – no matter what the limitations of their programmes may be – it would at least represent some crumbling of the monolith, and that would be all to the good. It would of course leave a lot of questions unanswered about alternatives, and I’ll return to that presently.