By Jack Holland
Last week’s news that the Provisional IRA had opened its arms dumps (or at least three of them) to two inspectors brought forth diverse reactions and provided yet another example of how the same event can be viewed in opposite ways.
According to Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, it was "an act of patriotism." He described it as a "courageous, groundbreaking and imaginative action." But for other republicans, the development left them definitely down in the dumps.
A former president of Sinn Fein, and former comrade of Adams, Ruairi O Bradaigh, who now heads Republican Sinn Fein, called the same gesture "an overt act of treachery," a "betrayal," an act of "counter-revolution" and "collaboration." O Bradaigh stated that it violated Rule 11 of the IRA’s Green Book, the sentence for which is death. So what one man sees as patriotism, the other views as treachery.
Since the peace process began, no other gesture made by the Provisionals has brought forth such bitter accusations, mostly from former members of the organization — not the calling of the cease-fire in 1994 nor even the decision to enter Stormont in 1998, though both of these overturned long-standing republican positions. Giving two strangers (i.e. Cyril Ramaphosa and Martti Ahtisaari) a glimpse of what republicans have in their bunkers is going too far for some.
Adams recognizes this. He wrote that it would "not be without pain within republican activism. Some will argue that the IRA leadership should not have moved, given the British government’s stance. Others will see this latest in a long line of republican initiatives as an initiative too far."
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Adams’s language is couched in euphemisms, of course; given the situation he is in, it has to be. What he calls "initiatives" others denounce as sell-outs. As usual, it all depends on the position from which you view the move. From the position of the current Provisional republican leaders, it was a move necessary to save the peace process and the Good Friday agreement, the success of which their political futures depend. All of those — and that would be the vast majority of the Irish people, I would guess — who support that process and wish to see the agreement last, would agree with Adams.
From the point of view of a traditional republican, however, the scene looks very different. The opening of the dumps is just the latest, perhaps most definitive sign, that the Provisional leadership has abandoned any pretense of being republican; instead, it has gone the way of Michael Collins, Eamonn De Valera and Cathal Goulding.
Ideological purists, of course, are never happy and they nearly always find themselves in a political minority, whatever the ideology. People always disappoint them because people have things on their mind other than ideology purity. Old-style republicans such as O Bradaigh recognize this — in fact, at times they seem downright proud of their isolation and the lonely vigil that they maintain. O Bradaigh believes that all will be well as long as "one section of the Irish people continue to resist English rule," even if it is a very small and increasingly unrepresentative section.
The truth is that the Provisionals never were ideologically pure republicans. It was a movement forged out of an amalgam of three different elements: republican purists like O Bradaigh; younger, pragmatic republicans like Adams who, while considering themselves left-wing, wanted the IRA to retain its military role, and a sort of Catholic defender element which was often sectarian and saw the main role of the IRA in the North as keeping the Protestants at bay. This latter element shared with Adams and those like him the need to get weapons, and their main requirement from the Dublin leadership was that it should meet that need. Politics could wait.
The point is that in 1969 what the younger Northerners of Adams’s generation had in common with the O Bradaigh generation was little more than a need to make sure the IRA did not go out of business because of its failure to protect local Catholics. The concern over whether the Dail was "legitimate" was mainly a Southern republican issue. It was not one that the majority of recruits to the Provisional IRA — most of them from the Belfast working class — really cared about. As far as they were concerned, it was an esoteric left-over from the Civil War in 1922 and had little bearing on what was happening on the streets of the Ardoyne or Ballymurphy.
The split which developed, with the formation of the Official IRA and Provisional IRA, was really about guns and who could best supply them to the Northern units. It is no surprise, therefore, that 30 years later it is the issue of guns that remains at the heart of the controversy over the Provisional IRA’s future within the peace process.
Like the armed campaign, the peace movement within the Provisionals has been mainly a Northern-driven affair. It has won the support of some important figures in the South, such as Martin Ferris. But the core of activists who realized that the armed struggle was doomed were Northerners. And by 1994, they were in a strong position to change the course of the republican movement. (In the late 1970s, they had taken over the IRA; in the 1980s, they had taken over Sinn Fein.) It was hard for the Southerners to protest — the war was in the North, after all, and it was mostly Northerners fighting it. They had a moral, as well as practical advantage, which no argument about the rights and wrongs of recognizing the Dail could overcome.
Opposition to the current strategy has come mainly from the South, with one or two prominent exceptions. The main critics of the Provisionals’ peace strategy, O Bradaigh’s Republican Sinn Fein and Michael McKevitt’s 32-County Sovereignty Committee, have little significant support North of the border. A survey in the North last spring which asked, "Which of the following groups/parties best represent your views?" listing 14 active parties in Northern Ireland, showed that Republican Sinn Fein got 1 percent of those polled and the 32-County Sovereignty Committee 0.4. That is, there is no popular base there for a return to violence.
The opening of the arms dumps is based on that realization. For the Provisionals, a return to war is impossible. Most people — and most republicans in the North — are happy with that position.