By Jack Holland
The announcement on June 26 that the IRA had opened its arms dumps to inspection came as no great surprise to many republicans and other observers who have been following the long and at times tortuous route the republican movement has taken since the 1990s.
"The surprises have taken place long ago," said Tommy McKearney, a former IRA man from County Tyrone who served a long prison sentence and was released in the early 1990s to become an occasional critic of republican policy.
The inspection of three dumps by Cyril Ramaphosa, former chairman of the African National Congress, and Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland, is simply the latest step in the road which the IRA began to follow in 1994 and which will lead, inevitably, to the dissolution of the mainstream physical-force tradition of Irish republicanism — a tradition that goes back over two centuries.
The inspections took place approximately six weeks after the IRA launched what it called an "unprecedented initiative" when it announced that it would allow outside inspectors to check its weapons stocks and report to the International Decommissioning Body. According to the IRA, the May 6 initiative "had the effect of breaking the impasse . . . in the peace process" and allowed the reformation of the devolved power-sharing government in Belfast, which had been suspended on Feb. 11.
For years, the IRA, when confronted with decommissioning demands, replied with the slogan, "not an ounce, not a bullet." Its rank-and-file were reassured that the weapons and explosives that they went to such risks to obtain would never be surrendered. However, according to a veteran police officer, this is what in effect has happened.
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"It’s a form of decommissioning," he said, reacting to the June 26 statement. He speculated that eventually the IRA would agree that, with regular inspections occurring, the maintaining of illegal arms stocks was a "pointless exercise" and agree to have them destroyed.
"You might get the bang in the bog," he said, if the IRA at some point in the future decides to get rid of its Semtex explosives.
Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, has described the gesture as "one of the most significant in 200 years of armed struggle." He is not exaggerating.
It is one which was unthinkable five years ago. But then to the majority of republicans so was the prospect of Sinn Fein allowing its elected candidates to enter Stormont. And before that, many thought that the IRA would never unconditionally declare a "cessation of military operations." But it did, on Aug. 31, 1994.
The peace process has proved to be, among other things, an abattoir for sacred cows as one after another has gone to the slaughter.
Of course, at the time these moves and others like them were being made, there was little warning for the rank-and-file. Just months before the IRA declared its 1994 cease-fire, activists were being reassured that the only discussion going on within the IRA was how best to prosecute the war.
"The men knew nothing about it until three days before it was declared," said a veteran republican. But he said that this was an improvement on the June 1972 cease-fire declaration.
"Then we were the last to know," he claimed. Most activists heard about it on the television news.
The majority of IRA members were probably unaware that as early as March 1995, the Sinn Fein leadership had been trying to get the party to agree to the recognition of Stormont even while the official line remained unchanged.
By June 2000, most IRA activists had been "conditioned rather than told" about the arms move, according to McKearney. He said that it was clear by then that a return to war was "impossible" and the leadership had determined that the Good Friday agreement "was the only way forward."
Whether the IRA disarmed or not, the point was that it could not go back to war.
"Getting men to go back to war under the current leadership is impossible," the veteran republican said.
The experience of the short campaign between February 1996 and July 1997 was sobering for the IRA. It led to the deaths of two volunteers and the arrests of about 50 men, among them some of the movement’s most experienced. Important units in London, Belfast and South Armagh were broken up — the three key theaters of operation, without which no serious campaign can ever hope to be maintained.
The IRA’s failures were partly due to the fact that during the peace process there was a gradual erosion of the organization.
"It’s a different type of organization now," McKearney said. "The political party runs things. The army has faded into the background."
Most believe that it will continue to do so. As far as the mainstream IRA is concerned, the physical-force tradition is at an end. It has been the case for some time. But it is only now that the leadership felt able to make its intentions clear.