Gerard Davison was a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army who was shot dead in May 2015 as he walked into a community centre in the Markets, a republican area close to Belfast city centre.
Davison was from strong republican stock and rose to prominence during the latter years of the IRA campaign. Significantly, he was alleged to have been present in Magennis's bar in central Belfast the night that Robert McCartney was murdered in January 2005, a murder for which Terence Davison, Gerard's uncle, was acquitted in 2008. Among the early motivations for the murder being thrown around in the allegation-sphere of twitter was that this was a revenge killing for McCartney.
Davison was also alleged to have been a senior member of Direct Action Against Drugs, an organisation that conducted operations against drug dealers during the PIRA ceasefire of 1995 and Henry McDonald, writing in the Guardian, described him as 'a one-time IRA commander...the most senior pro-peace process republican to have been killed since the IRA ceasefire of 1997.' Another unproven theory was that Davison had been killed in retaliation for a DAAD hit in 1995.
On 12 August, Kevin McGuigan, named later as having been the chief suspect in the Davison murder, was himself shot dead in the Short Strand area of East Belfast, a few minutes walk from the Markets. The Irish News reported that after an altercation with Davison, McGuigan had been kneecapped and expelled from the IRA. He was then reported to have become linked with criminal gangs in Belfast.
On 9 September, three senior republicans were arrested in Belfast in connection with the McGuigan murder. The three were Bobby Storey, a former IRA intelligence chief and the northern chairman of Sinn Fein, Eddie Copeland, a senior Ardoyne IRA man, and Brian Gillen, reportedly a member of the IRA's army council. The three were among the first on the scene of the Davison murder, offering support to the family of their fallen comrade.
The two killings have become a point of controversy in Northern Ireland's troubled peace process. Police Service of Northern Ireland Chief Constable George Hamilton publicly stated that the IRA were involved in the murder of McGuigan, adding that while the IRA still existed, the killing was not sanctioned at leadership level. Assistant Chief Constable Will Kerr added that the official view was that the IRA only existed at the senior level, the Active Service Units that were responsible for operations, no longer existed.
On 10 September, DUP leader Peter Robinson announced that he, as First Minister, and all DUP ministers (with the exception of Finance Minister Arlene Foster) would resign their positions. Foster was left in place 'to ensure that nationalists and republicans are not able to take financial and other decisions that may be detrimental to Northern Ireland'.
Robinson's statement made reference to 'the continued existence of the IRA', a throwback to the four occasions on which the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended in the past, between February and May 2000, two one-day suspensions in August and September 2001, and the longest suspension between October 2002 and May 2007, which followed a series of events that suggested continuing IRA activity, most notably an alleged IRA spy-ring and intelligence gathering operations at Stormont Parliament buildings.
Today, Northern Ireland finds itself once again on the brink of direct rule from London.
There are other factors at work here, notably Sinn Fein objections to welfare reforms implemented by the Conservative government at Westminster and the implication of the DUP in a scandal involving the National Asset Management Agency and the sale of portfolio items to Cerberus Capital Management. Political opposition, alleged corruption and paramilitarism. The first is hardly the stuff that should bring down a devolved assembly, rather it is exactly how a fully-functional power sharing body should work. The second is deeply troubling, but on a political and legal level.
Given the troubled history of Northern Ireland, it is the apparent re-emergence of the IRA and their apparent ability to continue to disrupt the mechanics of Northern Irish politics that is perhaps most worrying.
Former British agent Martin McGartland, he of Fifty Dead Men Walking fame, claimed that the McGuigan murder would never have been carried out without the authorisation of the IRA leadership. The PSNI arrests of arguably the three biggest names in the Belfast IRA in 2015, sends a complicated message. Clearly, much like the arrest of Gerry Adams back in April 2014 for questioning over the disappearance of Jean McConville, the arrests were designed to send a message to the IRA that the police are on top of recent events concerning the IRA. The problem is that the message sent to the population of Northern Ireland, and their elected representatives, is different.
Allegations about the involvement of the vast majority of IRA leaders in illegal activities have been made ad nauseum since the IRA's last operations in 1997. Proving them has been much harder.
The July 1998 murder of Andrew Kearney, who reportedly became involved in a fist fight with a senior IRA member and was fatally wounded and left to die in the stairwell of his New Lodge apartment building in retaliation, was allegedly dismissed as 'internal housekeeping' by a British civil servant. This callous indifference on the part of the government, language clearly reflective of the wider indifference to the odd murder in the wider context of a move towards peace in Northern Ireland, is striking in the context of the Davison and McGuigan murders which seem to have brought about much wider concern.
In August 1995, while speaking at Belfast City Hall, a member of the crowd called on Gerry Adams to 'bring back the IRA', to which Adams responded 'they haven't gone away, you know'. The McGuigan murder indicates that the IRA have indeed not gone away, but the inability of the PSNI to press charges on the three senior republicans arrested in Belfast on 9 September is indication that where the IRA persists, they do so with impunity. The IRA's campaign ended without achieving the goal of a united Ireland, but the spectre of the IRA continues to prevent functional political unity in Northern Ireland.
The solution to this problem is clearly manifold, but the ease with which the DUP settled back into the allegations of the 00's was striking and offered temporary diversion from their current difficulties. The willingness to move past the troubles has to come from political leaders. It is true that the IRA should not be allowed to operate with impunity, though how much of a threat they continue to offer Northern Ireland as a state or a society is highly questionable. It is also true that the people of Northern Ireland deserve better from the majority party.