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The Provos balk: from bottom up or top down?

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

The question has been raised as to why, after months of intense negotiations, and five years into the Good Friday agreement, with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness still, it seems, in full control of the republican movement, the IRA remains ambivalent about the course it has taken. Has it met with resistance from the rank-and-file as is sometimes suggested? Or are the reasons to do with political tactics or high-level internal dissent?
Almost seven months ago, within days of the suspension of the devolved government, the British prime minister, Tony Blair, flew to Belfast to make a fork-in-the-road speech about the future of the peace process. Thirty-three years earlier, another prime minister, Northern Irelands Terence ONeill, had given a similar address, warning the people that Ulster, as he termed it, had reached a crossroads: one route would take them down the road to more violence and bloodshed, the other to accommodation, compromise and peace. Unfortunately, ONeills pleas fell on deaf ears. History relates what route Northern Ireland took.
For Blair, the fork in the road was the choice facing the paramilitaries between a full commitment to peace and politics or to hang on to the weapons of war.
Would republicanism really take the final step of committing exclusively, Sinn Fein and the IRA, to the peaceful path, or would they wait for the British finally to complete the normalization of Northern Ireland, the policing and other changes promised before doing so?
That is the crunch and the problem is that the very thing republicans used to think gave them leverage, doesnt do it anymore. . . But the crunch is the crunch. There is no parallel track left. The fork in the road has finally come. . . . Remove the threat of violence and the peace process is on an unstoppable path. . . . So, thats where we are. Not another impasse. But a fundamental choice of direction, a turning point.
Last week, the republican movement failed in the eyes of the British and Irish governments to make the unequivocal choice for peace. Seemingly, the IRA had halted at the fork in the road, deciding to wait.
The crisis came after months of talks between both governments and all the pro-agreement parties as they tried to unblock the latest logjam. Most pressure was on the IRA and Sinn Fein as Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern pushed them to make what Blair had called in his October 2002 speech an act of completion. Instead, they received an IRA statement. It has yet to be released (it will be, say the IRA) but it was insufficient to make Dublin and London happy. A series of clarifications from Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, likewise failed in their overall effect. As a result, the Good Friday agreement has been to all intents and purposes parked for the indefinite future. Meanwhile, the question remains about the thinking behind the IRAs refusal to meet the demands for the act of completion.
It has been suggested that pressure from the bottom up has made the IRA balk at beginning a process that would lead to its dissolution as a guerrilla army — once one of the most effective in the world. There were ominous signs in the weeks leading up to Easter that other organizations belonging to the dissident republican movement were raising their profiles. The Continuity IRA held a press conference in West Belfast, threatening joy riders and petty criminals. The Irish National Liberation Army tarred and feathered two teens in the Ardoyne area — a stronghold of the IRA — and threatened to target more. Within days of the announcement that the elections were being cancelled, the Real IRA left a large incendiary bomb in central Belfast, the second attack in two months. Such manifestations might have caused the IRA to pause. However, some are skeptical that worries about other republican organizations taking over have much, if any, influence on republican thinking.
Support for those groups is nonexistent, said Anthony McIntyre, a former member of the IRA who has completed a PhD on the republican movement at Queens University, Belfast. He lives in the heart of West Belfast from where he writes frequently about the republican movement for The Blanket website. CIRA and INLA are no threat, he said. Nor does he believe is there any major internal resistance to the IRA leadership and its policies.
At every step theyve faced down challenges, he said. There have been problems . . . but there is no internal opposition to stop the leadership. According to McIntyre, while there are a lot of disillusioned republicans in Belfast, the vast majority take their views from the leadership. He believes that the Provisionals want institutional power but in this case miscalculated about the influence Dublin would have over London in convincing the government to get behind their offer.
However, Derry-based former republican and veteran civil rights activist Finbar ODoherty, who has written a history of the Northern Ireland conflict, believes there is resistance to disbandment in some areas.
South Armagh and Tyrone are opposed to further moves, he said. He also believes that the dissident republicans play a role in certain areas such as Derry.
Where the dissident movement is strongest you find disillusionment with the Provisionals highest, he said. ODoherty believes that there will always be a republican army of some description while the British connection remains and that the Provisionals realize this.
They are very unhappy with the growing dissident movement, he said.
Tommy McKearney comes from a prominent Tyrone republican family and served a long prison sentence in the 1970s and 80s for republican activities. He now works in a resettlement program for former republican prisoners.
McKearney believes that the republican leadership wants back into Stormont but is facing some resistance from two elements within the movement.
There are those who bought the line that it was necessary to end the armed campaign but are still unwilling to see the IRA disband this side of a United Ireland, he said. Then there is a significant group — those who feel they would be vulnerable because of their participating in knee-capping and other punishment activities. Theyve earned a certain enmity. Knee-cappers and ankle-breakers are quite unpopular. Left without an army to protect them, they would be open to revenge attacks.
He also said that the British miscalculated badly when Blair posed the three questions to the IRA about whether it was prepared to end all forms of violence such as punishment beatings, targeting, intelligence gathering, arms procurement and training.
Blairs questions were actually conditions framed as questions, McKearney said. The IRA leadership cannot be seen to be responding to conditions. However, in the long run he believes that accommodation will be reached.
Knee-cappers and ankle-breakers dont have a lot of political clout within the IRA, he insisted. Increasingly, they will be seen as disciplinary agents not freedom fighters. The British and Irish governments might well even turn a blind eye to some IRA members holding on to weapons for personal protection. This happened years ago with the Official IRA, which never surrendered any of its weapons after declaring a permanent cease-fire in 1972 though its political wing eventually entered the Dail.
Over 30 years of bloody conflict separate ONeills crossroads speech from Blairs fork-in-the-road address. In 1968, the failure to take the road of peace and compromise brought about the conflict and the violence that Blairs speech was attempting to exorcise from Irish politics once and for all. But as long as armed organizations — superannuated or not — remain, the ghost of that conflict will continue to haunt Irish politics.

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