By Jack Holland
If all goes according to plan, the Irish Republican Army will effectively cease to exist sometime early in the new millennium. This is one of the most revolutionary consequences which will come if the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement is achieved.
The process that could eventually dissolve the IRA has already started. Last weekend, the IRA leadership announced that the representative that it had appointed a week earlier to meet with the International Commission on Decommissioning had conducted his first talks with the commission’s chairman, Gen. John De Chastelain.
These developments are small steps, but the direction they are going in is clear. It is toward the disarmament of the oldest guerrilla organization in Europe and its incorporation into constitutional political structures.
In one sense, this has already been partly achieved at a political level. The IRA began decommissioning ideologically once it called its first cease-fire at the end of August 1994. It did this, as it stated, to "enhance the democratic peace process." But that process was built upon a premise that traditional republicanism had long rejected: that the source of the dispute in Northern Ireland was not with British imperialism but between unionists and nationalists. This carried with it an implied recognition that the unionist community had a right to remain part of the United Kingdom and that its consent is needed before that status is changed.
At a more practical level, the engagement of the republican movement in talks meant the direct involvement of leading IRA members, such as Gerry Kelly and Martin McGuinness. As IRA members, they have been effectively decommissioned.
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One of the two Sinn Féin representatives in the Northern Ireland power-sharing executive, McGuinness, now minister of education, has for a long time been a member of the IRA’s ruling body, the army council, and is a former chief of staff. It is difficult if not impossible in the long term for the republican movement to run at two distinct levels — that is, to be part of a democratic, legal government while at the same time maintaining a large, underground, and illegal "army." As Sinn Féin enters ever more deeply into the structures of the political establishment, the potential for embarrassment and damaging political scandal that might arise thanks to IRA activities increase exponentially.
The history of the Official IRA is a model of how this can happen. Frequent episodes involving the Officials in robberies, feuds, and racketeering placed the leadership of the Workers’ Party in an increasingly difficult position as it strove to consolidate its political role, especially south of the border. The Provisional IRA has a far greater economic infrastructure, which evolved during the 25-year period of the struggle in order to meet its fund-raising needs. These included illegal racketeering enterprises, as well as business operations which, though themselves legitimate, were funded thanks to bank robberies and other law-breaking endeavors such as cross-border smuggling.
It is inevitable that, having established its legitimacy, the political wing will finally have to rid itself of its illegal military adjunct. Clearly, it will take time for the republican movement to sort out such a complex network of activities and operations. It may well be that these will never fully disappear and that, for the foreseeable future, there will be an "armed" core in the nationalist areas of Northern Ireland on hand to defend the various interests of the leadership and as an "insurance policy" against any perceived loyalist threats in the future. After more than a quarter of a century of being on cease-fire, the Official IRA retains a rump organization with access to weapons. It would not be surprising if the Provisionals did the same.
To retain such a group, of course, means that whatever the leadership proclaims about its intention to fulfill its decommissioning commitments according to the terms of the Good Friday agreement, some weapons will have to be kept. Technically, this should not present too much of a problem, even though the authorities have in their possession inventories from two of the most important arms suppliers the Provisionals ever had. In late 1995, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya offered a list of the weapons and explosives he gave to the IRA between 1985 and 1987. In 1981, the FBI seized the inventory kept by George Harrison, who headed the IRA’s U.S. arms running network. However, while this may provide an accurate account of material sent, it is still far from giving an overall accurate picture of what the IRA has at its disposal. Security sources acknowledge that probably the IRA itself does not know how much may be lying around in small dumps set up by local commanders.
Still, however the dispute about the amount of arms unfolds, it will not affect the changes that, if they go ahead, will render the IRA a thing of the past. Some think that this has already happened.
"I don’t think they have any right to call themselves the IRA any longer," said former gun-runner Harrison on the consequences of the republican movement’s commitment to decommissioning. Most believe people like Harrison, who supports those republicans who reject the peace process, are in a minority. But he offers a word of caution. According to Harrison: "It might seem right now we’re the legion of the rearguard. But there are more of us than people like McGuinness think."
This suggests that while the "Provisional" IRA might dissolve itself, others professing traditional republican aims and methods might still be a factor.