An incident involving senior republican Sean Kelly caused a furore this week when he was arrested but swiftly released in connection with an apparent ‘punishment attack’ in north Belfast.
Kelly, a (former) Provisional IRA Volunteer and still linked with Sinn Féin, was arrested in connection with the vigilante-style attack on an alleged drug dealer.
His detention immediately raised unionist hackles and suspicions that his arrest pointed to continuing ‘underground’ activity by the Provisional IRA. It also raised the potential of a serious dispute at the Stormont Assembly, with unionist political leaders suggesting a threat existed to the power-sharing agreement between Sinn Féin and the DUP.
DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson said the arrest of the Provisional IRA figure could have “grave consequences” for the political process, while his deputy leader Nigel Dodds called on Kelly to be returned (interned) to Maghaberry prison.
Robinson even accused Sinn Féin of being involved in the shooting. “We will be monitoring very closely the facts of this case as they arise and the Sinn Féin response to them,” he said.
Sinn Féin junior minister Jennifer McCann said no-one in her party believed Sean Kelly was involved in the punishment attack, while partt colleague Gerry Kelly criticised both the arrest and the unionist response.
“In one move this has shown poor political leadership from unionism and at the same time damaged policing in the republican community,” Mr Kelly said.
Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said it was “frankly ridiculous” to say it should threaten the political process.
“The violence related to extreme loyalist protests in recent weeks represented a serious challenge to the political process. We in Sinn Féin kept our nerve.
“The assertion that this shooting in north Belfast, which I unreservedly condemn, and the facts of which are at this stage under PSNI investigation and are unclear, should threaten the political process, is frankly ridiculous.
“The DUP should keep their nerve.”
But within 24 hours, Kelly’s release -- described as “unconditional” by the police -- calmed the political waters.
However, his swift release contrasted sharply with the lengthy detentions known as “internment by remand” which normally face republicans on arrest, a point not lost on Sinn Féin’s ‘dissident’ republican critics.
And both unionists and republican hardliners also pointed out the topsy-turvy spin applied by the PSNI to the incident this week.
In the initial reports of the attack on Tuesday night, the PSNI police described the shooting as “paramilitary-style”.
But following Kelly’s detention, the PSNI issued a “clarification” saying they did not suspect paramilitary involvement. Then when Kelly was released the next day, they carried out another u-turn to describe the incident as “a suspected paramilitary-style shooting”.
Pointing to the PSNI’s self-contradictions, Ulster Unionist Assembly member Tom Elliott said they had “come under severe political pressure to distance mainstream republicans from this shooting”.
The incident is not the first controversy involving Sean Kelly, who became notorious for an abortive IRA bomb attack on the UDA leadership as they gathered for meeting in the Shankill Road in 1993.
In 2005, his prison release licence was revoked following a riot which broke out in Ardoyne after a sectarian Orange Order parade was forced through the north Belfast community.
His summary return to jail provoked a political crisis -- but he was released a month later, in tandem with an announcement by the Provisional IRA that it had formally ended its armed campaign.