By Jack Holland
To understand why Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA remain so stubborn on the issue of disarmament is to understand the very nature of the Provisional republican movement.
When the IRA split in late 1969, the splinter that became the Provisional IRA was made up of three elements. First, there was the traditional republicans, men like Billy McKee and Ruairi O Brádaigh, who were fiercely opposed to the reformist tendencies of the IRA leadership, which wanted, among other things, to recognize the Dáil. Second, there were the younger left-wing oriented volunteers, mostly Northerners, mainly in Belfast and Derry, who had been drawn into the republican movement by its emphasis on social activism. Gerry Adams would have been representative of this group. Third, there were those who had originally been vigilantes, formed into loosely knit groups after the riots and burnings of August 1969. They were concentrated mostly in North Belfast, where areas such as the Ardoyne were vulnerable to loyalist attack. They were mainly attracted to the Provisionals rather than the "old" IRA, which became the Officials, because the Provos were prepared to arm them.
True, both the traditionalists and the left-wingers saw arms also as a vital issue, especially since they feared that the Dublin leadership was then intent on decommissioning the IRA en route to transforming it into a political party with socialist goals. While Adams may have gone along with the leadership’s emphasis on housing action programs, infiltrating the trade unions, and building up support for republican goals in other left-wing organizations, he thought disarmament too high a price to pay.
Since then, the Provisionals have gone through a remarkable series of transformations, about as radical as those envisioned in the late 1960s by the reformist leadership in Dublin.
In 1986, they recognized the Dáil as Ireland’s legitimate government. The traditionalists peeled away in disgust, seeing a reenactment of what had happened in 1969. Rúairí O Brádaigh set up his own political movement, with its own political wing, Republican Sinn Féin, and an armed faction, the Continuity IRA.
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It is hard to say when the Provisionals’ radical left-wing policies began to peel away. The Provisionals had remained fairly loyal — at least rhetorically — to their aim of creating a socialist republic throughout the late 1970s and into the early ’80s. In those days, they enjoyed solidarity with groups like the PLO, the ANC and the Sandinistas, as well as benefiting from shipments of arms from leftist nationalist movements in the Middle East. But by the late 1980s, socialism was no longer a prominent feature of Provisional propaganda. By the early 1990s, it had gone the way of abstentionism.
The one thing that hasn’t gone away, that remains at the core of the Provisional movement, is arms. That is why since the beginning of the peace process decommissioning has been such a difficult and contentious issue. The Provisionals may have given up their abstentionism, they may have abandoned their socialism, but they will not give up their guns, or at least not so easily. The weapons might well be seen as the last vestige of the old Provisional republican movement, linking it to its past.
In late 1969 and early ’70, as word about the birth of the new organization spread through the Belfast nationalist ghettos, on the gable walls of houses appeared a crude drawing of a phoenix rising from the flames. Underneath was the slogan: "Out Of the Ashes of ’69 Arose the Provisionals."
The events of 1969 defined the Provisional movement. And at the heart of that definition was the need to possess weapons. This was especially important to working-class nationalists who lived in exposed neighborhoods, in the Short Strand in East Belfast, the Ardoyne, the New Lodge Road, and the Bone, all in the north of the city. The weapons were a guarantor of protection against loyalist attacks. It was mainly from these districts also that an element of sectarianism entered the movement. North Belfast Provisionals were more or less operating on their own in the early 1970s, and carried out bloody attacks on Protestants usually in revenge for loyalist killings. But more generally, during the split the possession of weapons and the willingness of the new leadership to provide them to republicans in Belfast was the key to persuading many of those still undecided to join the Provisionals. It was more crucial to them than the debate over abstentionism or the issue of whether the IRA should adopt a radical left-wing program. It is no wonder then that the current Provisional leadership is having such difficulty in moving on the issue of decommissioning. A BBC journalist has reckoned that 1,000 hours of talks have already been devoted to trying to settle the issue in the last 18 months, to date without success.
The Provisionals know that once the decommissioning process begins then they will have lost the last link to their 1969 heritage. The phoenix will have returned to the ashes from which it arose.
However, at the moment there seems very little prospect of this happening.
As an indication of the importance the Provisionals attach to their 1969 origins, witness Adams’s recent remarks while on a visit to New York. At a luncheon hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, Adams was asked more than once why the IRA could not make a decommissioning gesture in order to "test" the Unionists. He answered by referring back to the riots and burnings of 1969, what he called the "biggest forced movement of population" in Europe since World War II. "Pogroms raged," he said, "whole streets were razed. . . . People understood that."
He meant, of course, working-class nationalists understood that — the need for "defense" against loyalist attack, a need identified with the Provisionals. It is also a need with which the Provisionals continue to identify.
Whether or not it is a realistic need is another matter. It is probably true to say that the Provisional IRA has not prevented one single sectarian murder. Confronted by the most lethal kind of violence directed against the nationalist population since 1971, random murder, there was very little that a small guerrilla force could do other than to exact revenge, which, from time to time, it did. But that really is not the point. When the Provisionals refuse to hand over weapons they are defending their very genesis. Which is one reason why the decommissioning problem remains as intractable as it does.