Category: Archive

A View North IRA’s been ending its ‘war’ for years

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The road to peace in Ireland is full of U-turns.

This should come as no surprise to any one who is familiar with even a smidgen of Irish history. That is why the current fuss over the Provisional IRA’s decision to declare that its "war" is over is a waste of energy. Since about 1988, the leadership of the IRA has been trying to bring its war to halt. In November that year, Danny Morrison, then publicity director for the republican movement (among other roles he had), told me that the IRA would not hesitate to end its armed campaign if it thought that the move would be beneficial. This was six years before the IRA called its first long-term cease-fire.

By late 1989, Martin McGuinness, who had a reputation as a "hawk," was talking about bringing the armed struggle to a "conclusion," as was revealed in secret communications from a high-ranking IRA prisoner in Crumlin Jail in Belfast. By the following year, the secret channel of communication between the Provisionals and the British government that had existed for about 20 years was reactivated, with the agreement of Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister. In documents later released by the British, it was claimed that in the initial contact McGuinness had told the British the war was over and asked them to help the IRA bring it to a halt. Later, Sinn Fein vigorously refuted this claim, publishing its own records of the secret contacts.

However, whether the IRA leaders said it or not, they were clearly intent on doing it, as subsequent events showed.

In the meantime, the Provisionals were publicly denying that they would ever stop the campaign until the British had withdrawn or at least declared their intention to withdraw from Northern Ireland. Even as the secret negotiations continued, a Provisional spokesman told the Guardian newspaper that there was no debate within the movement about whether to end the campaign. He said: "Our discussions revolve around the best means of prosecuting the war." He was lying, of course.

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The interview appeared on Feb. 12, 1993. Two months later, I spoke with a high-ranking republican who told me a different story: that the armed campaign had run its course and would be ended before long. He had been on the run in Dublin since the mid-1970s, but asserted confidently that he would be back home in Belfast for Christmas 1994. He was.

The Provisional IRA leadership was telling its supporters one thing, boasting about its militancy, while pursuing a course that would lead to the ending of the armed campaign. In 1986, McGuinness had declared that on the issue of violence, "our position is clear and it will never, never, never change. The war against British rule must continue until freedom is achieved." Eight years later, he was on the army council that decided to declare the cease-fire, with the British still very much in place north of the border.

U-turns have been a part of republican history throughout this century, and McGuinness was part of a venerable tradition of militarists who become politicians going back to Michael Collins. What distinguishes the current republican leaders from their predecessors is the way they have managed the U-turn. They are the only leaders to have done so without causing a major split within IRA ranks. Collins’ acceptance of the Treaty led to a civil war. The 1960s IRA leadership’s attempt to abandon the physical-force tradition led to a split and the creation of the Provisional and Official IRAs. The Official IRA’s unilateral cease-fire of May 1972 led to another split, and the emergence of the Irish National Liberation Army in 1974.

In 1986, a group opposed to the leadership’s decision to recognize the Dail, did walk out to form Republican Sinn Fein and the Continuity IRA. But this was not on the scale of the previous splits. Later, in 1997, when the Provisionals declared another cease-fire and decided, during the course of the talks that led to the Good Friday agreement, to also recognize Stormont, the 32-County Sovereignty Committee was set up and alongside it the "Real IRA," as it called itself. It too failed to substantially weaken the Provisional movement, which retained the support of the vast majority of its activists. It had concluded that after more than a quarter of a century of violence, it had little choice but to take the political road. The simple truth was that the violence had failed to achieve its objective of driving the British out of Northern Ireland. That is, the U-turn was inspired by a failure — the same failure that has dogged the republican movement since its beginnings.

However, though obvious, almost no one will actually admit this to be the case. Defeat is not a word in the peace process vocabulary. Neither is victory.

It is inevitable then that the Provisionals should decommission their armory at some point. It is built into the very logic of the process. Having accepted the Northern Irish state, and the principle of Unionist consent, the maintenance of an illegal army becomes an anomaly. What is the point of keeping a force the purpose of which is to oppose something which you no longer oppose? And as everyone knows, anomalies do not endure for very long.

That the Provisionals have managed to avoid a serious split despite abandoning their traditional republicanism is a testimony not only to the deftness of their leaders but to the trust in which they are held by the majority of republicans. No doubt that trust would endure the decommissioning process as it has endured the other U-turns the movement has made since 1986.

A few weeks ago I penned a piece on Unionist women with the premise that their lot is not a happy one. My attention has been drawn to the fact that the UUP’s representative in Washington is Anne Smith. Ms. Smith, I have learned, addressed the party’s conference in October and is confident that the position of women in the party is set to improve. And she insists that she did not have to butter one scone all the time she was there. Brava!

I was amused to read that in Oakland, Calif. a street has been named after the Sinn Fein president: Gerry Adams Way. Let us hope it is not a one-way street or a dead end. It said nothing about permitting U-turns. Just as well, I think.

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