By Jack Holland
After the Good Friday agreement was signed in April 1998, Seamus Mallon, the SDLP’s deputy leader, called it "Sunningdale for Slow Learners," referring to the 1973 power-sharing deal that later collapsed under loyalist pressure.
The Provisional IRA’s statement last week in which it promised to put its arms "beyond use," could be described as "The War Is Over for Slow Learners," for that is, in effect, what it means. It is a declaration that, as far as this generation of the IRA leaders are concerned, the physical-force option is finished. Adams, McGuinness and Co. thereby join a long line of republican militants going back to Michael Collins who have abandoned physical force for politics. They are different in that they took longer to do it.
The Provisionals’ campaign lasted for 25 years. Many thought that they were so intransigently wedded to violence that they would never, under any foreseeable circumstances short of a British declaration to withdraw from Northern Ireland, call off the campaign. Provisional leaders like McGuinness reinforced that belief with defiant talk right up to 1994.
That year, as rumors spread that there was a move within the IRA to declare a cease-fire, an IRA spokesman told the Guardian newspaper in England that the only discussions going on inside the movement were about how best to prosecute the war and get the British out once and for all.
He was lying. From the early 1990s, the talk was really about how to bring the armed struggle to an end — at least among the upper echelons where these decisions are taken. The army council, the Provisionals’ governing body, never told anybody that, of course. IRA volunteers went out to bomb and shoot, intent upon taking the lives of others as well as risking their own, in the belief that their leaders meant what they said.
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They trusted their leaders. Within the Provisionals this was especially important. The Provisionals had been created by people who had rejected a previous leadership’s attempts to end the physical-force tradition within the IRA. The Dublin-based and controlled army council, whose members included Cathal Goulding, Seamus Costello, and Sean Garland, had been viewed suspiciously as too "political." The new leaders, among whom were Joe Cahill, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, would never go down that road. They tended to view politics the way the Rev. Ian Paisley views the Catholic church — as a seductress that will eventually emasculate and destroy all those who succumb to her allure. In a way, it was the old prejudice of the honest soldier against the crafty politician.
The fact that the Provisionals existed because they had rejected the political road being taken by the leadership in 1969 meant they were especially vigilant about any sign of a new "betrayal" of the struggle. The only politics they were interested in were the politics of British withdrawal and that would only come about through the use of the bomb and the bullet. Of course, the Provisionals were not, even at this stage, just simple-minded gunmen — though they did attract their fair share of those. They had a political analysis, but it was unrealistic enough to allow them never to have to worry about having to actually implement it.
The Provisionals’ origins meant that a turn to politics could only come under extraordinary circumstances. These came about during the hunger strike of 1981. Daithi O Conaill argued forcefully for a political intervention, supported by Adams, in the belief that if the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, were elected, it would save his life and those of his comrades who were following him. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher would have to concede to their demands.
Sands won, but Thatcher did not back down.
The hunger strikes have faded, as has the argument over political status, but the consequences of the Provisionals’ decision to intervene politically have not. It was the beginning of the road that would lead to the Good Friday agreement, Sinn Fein’s entry into government and the sealing of the arms dumps.
In 1981, any one in the IRA who argued that the leadership should allow Sinn Fein elected officials to enter Stormont would risk getting shot as a traitor — a "Sticky" (Official IRA member). As is often the case with revolutionary movements, what was once heterodox becomes orthodox, sometimes overnight. It took the Provisionals almost 20 more years, most of them spent proving that they were still devotees of the physical-force tradition. But some IRA members already had their doubts about the sincerity of that devotion. The late Eamon Collins, former intelligence officer for the Provisionals, claimed in his book "The Killing Rage" that as early as 1984 he realized a change was coming. The epiphany came at the funeral of IRA volunteer Brendan Watters in August that year when Adams, then an MP, intervened to stop a riot breaking out between the mourners and the police.
"His behavior only made sense if the war was over," Collins wrote. "Adams was behaving in this way because he knew this was true. . . . We were all taking part in a charade. . . . The war was over; the only problem was that no one could call it off."
Collins became angry, denouncing Adams as a "Sticky." Then he grew disillusioned, broke under police interrogation, and made statements against fellow IRA members. He later retracted his evidence. But in January 1999 the Provisionals brutally murdered him. By then, the intuitions he said he experienced in 1984 had proven accurate. The war was well and truly over. Sinn Fein would enter the Northern Ireland government later that year.
Collins wonders about the morality of a leadership which maintained an armed campaign, taking hundreds more lives, while at the same time, he asserts, knowing deep down that the war would end sooner or later and almost certainly without the IRA achieving its aims.
Between 1984 and 1994, the year of the first IRA cease-fire, Libya had supplied the Provisionals with about 120 tons of weapons, enabling the war to continue at an even greater intensity.
Those are the weapons that were meant to drive Britain out of Northern Ireland but are instead now being made ready for inspection by Cyril Ramaphosa and Martti Ahtisaari, who will report directly to the decommissioning commission chaired by General John De Chastelain. Those weapons failed to drive Britain out; ironically, they will instead enable Sinn Fein to get back into government, along with the Unionists, if things go according to plan. And they probably will.