Category: Archive

A View North To forsake arms — it ain’t so easy

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The peace process would not be the same without a crisis, would it? At the moment everyone is piling pressure on Sinn Fein to get them to go to the IRA to ask for decommissioning to begin. It is well known that when it comes to the thorny issue of giving up its guns, the IRA has been echoing St. Augustine’s remark: Lord make me virtuous, but not yet. They are committed to "the total demilitarization" of the situation, but not quite yet.

While the current crisis has something of a manufactured air about it, nonetheless it has always the potential to become real, especially since David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party’s leader, is desperate to steady his ranks and prevent any further defections.

There is a way out of this, I think, which would satisfy all sides.

What if Martin McGuinness, the former IRA chief of staff who Sinn Fein has appointed to liaise with the decommissioning body, were to say that he has reached agreement with that body on how the process might begin — the so-called "modalities" of the matter? A commitment before an international body would be seen as a firm indication of the republican movement’s seriousness about its adherence to the non-violent way.

Or the decommissioning body’s chairman, General de Chastelain, if he wants to be helpful could make a statement to the effect that the body is happy with the republican movement’s commitment to decommissioning and progress has been made as to how they ought to go about it. Either or both might help defuse the situation before it gets too difficult and Mr. Trimble ends up like former British Prime Minister John Major, who also made an issue out of decommissioning, and got caught in his own trap. But even if this is resolved to everybody’s satisfaction, it will be just the beginning of the problem.

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For a start, no one is quite sure how much the IRA actually has stored away in arms hides around the country. The British government claimed some years ago that the Provisionals have about 100 tons of weapons, ammunition and explosives, the bulk of it from Libya, which in the mid-1980s contributed most of the IRA’s AK-47 rifles, the RPG-7 rockets and Semtex explosives. But there remains also an unknown quantity of armalites, hand guns, M-3 "grease guns," submachine guns and even the odd bazooka that came over from the George Harrison network in New York in the decade before. There is also the possibility that other supplies slipped through about which the intelligence services know nothing or next to nothing.

The Provisionals will claim that they have less — about 80 tons. The difference of 20 tons is not an inconsiderable one. After the Official IRA called its cease-fire in May 1972, it held on to its weapons even after what was then its political wing, the Workers’ Party, entered coalition government in Dublin. The "Stickies," as they were known, still have about three tons of weapons hidden away somewhere. A knowledgeable source claims that three tons is enough to equip about 200 men, which in turn would be enough to keep an armed campaign going for quite some time. If this estimation is correct, it means that the 20 tons — the difference between the government’s estimate and IRA estimate — would be enough to arm around 2,000 guerrillas, more than enough to cause a lot of trouble for a long time. It will be an interesting problem for the future to see how this dispute will be resolved. It will be especially difficult since if there is no precise intelligence on the matter, then it is going to be almost impossible for either government to prove or disprove IRA claims about what it possesses or does not possess in the way of weapons and explosives.

Of course, it will be more of a matter for the Irish government to resolve, since the vast bulk of IRA weapons are believed hidden within its jurisdiction. After the 1994 cease-fire, most of the IRA’s weapons were moved south. In April 1995, the Belfast Sunday Life reported that the IRA’s quartermaster general moved the organization’s weapons to new arms dumps to avoid them falling into the hands of breakaway groups. (Ironically, Micky McKevitt, who was QMG at the time, later led one such splinter group himself, the so-called Real IRA, which was responsible for the Omagh bombing last August.) In the end, the fact that the weapons are in the Irish Republic may turn out to be an advantage since the level of trust between Dublin and the republican movement is fairly high, which would facilitate the process of decommissioning.

When it comes to decommissioning, the focus is always on republicans, to the exclusion of loyalists, partly because it is assumed that if the IRA gets rid of its weapons, then the UDA and UVF will destroy theirs. There is also an assumption that the IRA simply has a lot more to decommission. This is almost certainly true. But the loyalists should not be underestimated. On Nov. 24, 1993, a huge arms shipment destined for the UVF was intercepted in Teesport, England. On board the vessel, which was Polish, was found 300 AK-47 assault rifles and two tons of explosives, as well as other weapons. The shipment had apparently originated in East Germany.

A short time afterward, police information led them to believe that the UDA had succeeded in bringing into the country a similar-sized shipment. It is not clear from whence it came or what became of it. Who knows how many such deals were done over the years without the police or MI5 knowing about it?

Regardless of what they say, the UDA, UVF, IRA and INLA will be unlikely ever to hand over all their weapons. Some will be secreted away for protection of individual members. Some will be kept back for the "protection" of their communities. Given the turbulent history of Ulster that should hardly surprise any one. The IRA remembers all too well that what give birth to the Provisional IRA was the old IRA’s attempts to disarm itself.

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