By Jack Holland
I never cease to be surprised at the ability of the decommissioning controversy to bring out the hypocrisy of some people. Take John Taylor, for instance, the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. For months, if not years, he has been fulminating about Sinn Fein and the IRA’s refusal to hand over weapons, which, according to him, disqualifies Sinn Fein from consideration as democrats. How can you be a democrat and be linked to an armed organization? he asks.
Coming up a close second in the hypocrisy stakes is Tom French of the Workers’ Party, who also recently launched himself at Sinn Fein demanding a weapons handover.
French, of course, said nothing about the little stash that Workers’ Party activists have hidden away around Ireland. Ask Taylor, he’ll tell you all about it. In February 1972, the Official IRA tried to murder him — he was then home affairs minister for the Stormont government — with weapons taken from that stash. He was hit seven times. Five of the bullets struck him in the head.
As far as I know, those weapons were never recovered, and are probably lying around rusting in an arms dump somewhere. But most interestingly of all, in light of the current controversy, Taylor met with members of the Workers’ Party — the political wing of the Official IRA — a few years after the assassination attempt. According to him, they had a friendly chat and he came away impressed with their commitment to democratic procedures. Yet I am not aware that the issue of asking the Official IRA to hand over any weapons ever came up in conversation. Why not? It would have been the perfect opportunity of testing the Officials’ commitment to democratic procedures. But it never occurred to anyone, including one of their own victims, to apply such a test.
Calling for decommissioning is like casting the first stone — let him who is without guilt, etc. Especially in relation to French’s party. The Officials called a cease-fire in 1972. It lasted. The Workers’ Party met with British government officials and the police in the North on a regular basis, as they did south of the border. In 1982, they won a seat in the Dail, and went on in the following years to win more, as many as seven at one stage, prompting them to boast that they were going to overtake the Irish Labor Party. Yet during that entire period, I don’t think the issue of decommissioning ever arose, at least not in the public forum. And we are not talking about pea-shooters. In 1979, the Officials imported about two tons of weapons from the Soviet block. It is estimated that they possess about three tons altogether. Which means they have probably more weapons at their disposal than either the Ulster Volunteer Force, or the Ulster Defense Association (though the latter might well have received a large resupply in 1993). Certainly, they outgun the Loyalist Volunteer Force, which is expected to cough up a few pistols soon, and maybe also the Irish National Liberation Army. Three tons is enough, I’m told by an informed source, to equip about 200 volunteers, should the Workers’ Party decided that the time has come to relaunch the armed campaign.
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As recently as last September, the Officials and the Provisionals confronted each other in Twinbrook in West Belfast in what The Andersonstown News described as a "tense standoff." Earlier in the year, in Newry, the Officials and the Provisionals got involved in a shooting match which left several people injured. So it is not as if those guns were all allowed to rust in the arms dumps.
Far from it. At the beginning of last year, rumors spread that the Official IRA — supposedly inoperative since the mid-1970s — had in fact split. The more militant wing, calling itself the Official Republican Movement, was threatening a feud with its former colleagues. It accused a prominent Official IRA man who controlled part of the movement’s considerable financial resources of being a British informer. Guns were drawn — guns that no one had ever requested the Officials to decommission, of course. In October 1997, an arms shipment said to have been destined for the ORM was intercepted in Dublin. The Official IRA was involved in more serious violence in the years following its cease-fire. A few years before the Workers’ Party entered the Dail, the Official IRA assassinated Seamus Costello on a Dublin Street.
In truth, the Workers’ Party/Official IRA never have cut their links with guns and gunmen. This was at the center of the controversy in early 1992, when reformers led by Prionsias De Rossa were demanding that the party get rid of the military leftovers. A contentious debate ended when De Rossa and his supporters split to form the Democratic Left. Ironically, considering the topic of the debate, De Rossa had once claimed that the Official IRA had "gone away" in 1972.
The old-timers, most of them from the North, wanted to hang on to their gear, and made that clear.
Not long after the Democratic Left was formed it joined a coalition government with Labor and Fine Gael. It took the party just over 20 years from the time the Officials called their cease-fire to the time they entered government. Now Democratic Left is considering merger proposals with the Irish Labor Party. Ireland has only room for one purveyor of tepid socialism, thank heavens.
The Provisionals have moved much more quickly than their former comrades in the Officials. They are currently on the verge of entering Northern Ireland’s new government-in-waiting, no more than four years after they first declared their cessation of violence. The question arises as to how far they will follow the Workers’ Party/Democratic Left route. Is there room in the North for two nationalist parties — i.e. Sinn Fein and the SDLP? After all, once you remove the issue of the armed struggle, what you have left is two parties espousing basically the same kind of mildly radical social democratic policies. It was the methods, not the aims, which made Sinn Fein revolutionary.
Is there another merger coming up?