By Jack Holland
Generally speaking, the rule is that the Northern Ireland crisis has been relatively immune from international politics. Its dynamic has been more or less a local one. There is one great exception, though, and the recent declaration by President Bush of a war on terrorism is a reminder of it.
In 1985, when President Reagan made a similar declaration, aimed mainly at Libya and its dictator, Col. Omar Gaddafi, it had several important consequences for the Irish crisis. It led to a revision of the U.S. extradition law, to narrow the provisions of the political exemption clause. (Joe Doherty was still incarcerated in the correctional center in Manhattan fighting a British extradition warrant.) It produced a severe crackdown on Irish Northern Aid, which finally had to register as an agent of the IRA. But more important, it led directly to the influx of a huge number of Arab weapons into Ireland, which in turn allowed the Provisional IRA to revive its then flagging campaign. Indeed, it led to a vicious escalation of terror in the North, in England and on the European continent.
The question now arises, could organizations such as the Real IRA or the Continuity IRA — both of which continue to try and undermine the peace process through a small-scale terror campaign — benefit from some angry Arab dictator or Moslem fundamentalist’s hatred of the U.S.?
In 1985, the Provisional IRA’s campaign seemed to be running out of steam. Though in one major massacre in Newry, Co. Down, the Provisionals had killed nine police officers, the overall rate of violence had dropped drastically, to reach its lowest point since 1970. Of the 58 fatalities that year, only six were soldiers (both part-time and regular). Hundreds of IRA and INLA activists were behind bars, thanks to the testimony of so-called “supergrasses” — former paramilitary members turned informers.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein was increasingly exploring the political option. Gerry Adams, the party president, had won a seat in the British general election of 1983. Early in 1985, the SDLP’s John Hume had met with the members of the Provisional Army Council — the IRA’s leadership body — in an extraordinary attempt to persuade them of the futility of the armed campaign. (The meeting broke up when Hume insisted on making a video of it.) In May, Sinn Fein had fought local elections for the first time, and won (to many people’s surprise) 59 seats. There was more and more talk within the republican movement of fighting elections in the Irish Republic and ending the ban on successful Sinn Fein candidates that prevented them from taking their seats in the Dail. In November 1985, the Irish and British governments had signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the most significant political initiative in over a decade, one that gave Dublin a role for the first time in matters north of the Irish border. This was a clear political challenge to Sinn Fein (whose condemnation of it was noticeably qualified), and the party needed all its resources to face it.
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It was into this uncertain mix that the international crisis, involving the U.S., the Middle East and Britain, thrust itself. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Reagan had vowed to step up pressure on international terrorist organizations, many of which, they claimed, were being sponsored by Libya. A London policewoman had been shot dead by fire from the Libyan Embassy. There had been attacks on U.S. personnel in Europe. Sanctions had been imposed on Libya, which was excoriated in the U.S. and British media as an outlaw nation — much the way Afghanistan is being treated in the present crisis.
The Provisional IRA had a longstanding link to Libya. In 1972, Joe Cahill, founding member of the Provisionals, ex-O/C of the Belfast brigade, and member of the PAC, had arranged to have a supply of RP-G7 rockets flown into Ireland. As relations with Libya, Britain and the U.S. deteriorated in the mid-1980s, Gaddafi reached out again, first contacting the INLA, and then the Provisionals. As a high-ranking INLA activist said: “The Arabs were ready to give you anything.” The first shipment arrived in August 1985. They were stepped up after the U.S. bombed Tripoli in April 1986. U.S. fighter jets had refueled in Britain. In effect, Gaddafi was using the Provisionals as an instrument of revenge on the British.
Another two large shipments arrived, the last in September 1986, bringing a total of 150 tons of weapons and explosives to Ireland. British intelligence’s failure to detect the hauls has been described as its greatest since World War II.
The first Semtex bombs began killing people in 1986. Heavy Russian machine guns and flame throwers were used in deadly attacks on police stations and checkpoints. For the first time, Provisionals attacks became frequent on the continent, with bombings and shootings against British military installations and personnel. Ground-to-air missiles were fired at helicopters.
Semtex was used to detonate huge car bombs which devastated provincial towns, the center of Belfast and London’s financial district. The huge arms supply had given the armed campaign a new lease of life, making the republican leadership believe that it could score a knockout blow against Britain’s presence in Northern Ireland. Almost double the number of people were killed in 1987 than had been killed in 1985. Those numbers kept rising.
Did it delay the search for a political solution? Almost certainly, because it was only after disasters such as the Enniskillen bombing in late 1987, when a dozen civilians were killed, that Sinn Fein reopened contacts with Hume. But the armed campaign had a new momentum which did not expend itself until the early 1990s.
Because, of the peace process, the Provisionals are out of the running for any potential largesse that might come as a result of the current international crisis. The question is, do groups like the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA have the infrastructure to absorb any large number of weapons from the Arab world?
When Gaddafi first made his offer he approached the INLA, which was too small to handle the huge shipments. What we know of the CIRA and RIRA suggests that they too do not have the organizational capacity to exploit a Gaddafi-style offer, if ever one came. However, if even small amounts of explosives and weapons filter their way toward these recalcitrant groups, it would make them far more dangerous than they already are. It would be ironic indeed if that were to be one of the consequences of the attacks on America.