The IRA needs to re-structure…

DR JOHN COULTER is a Northern political columnist with the Irish Daily Star. Here, he argues the Provisional IRA could get around the disbanding dilemma by restructuring itself as the Irish Republican Association, based on similar lines as the Royal British Legion.By John Coulter

The Provisional Irish Republican Army needs to copy its arch rivals, the British Army, and form an Old Comrades’ Association to get around the thorny problem of those nasty D words – decommissioning and disbanding.

West Belfast Westminster MP Gerry Adams, the President of the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Fein, has really landed himself in hot water with the republican hardline activists in East Tyrone, South Derry and South Armagh.

Adams tried to spike the rival Ian Paisley-led Democratic Unionist Party’s artillery with his perception the Provisionals might have to disband to make way for political progress.

His remarks exploring a scenario where the IRA might no longer exist have been totally misinterpreted in Northern Ireland Provisional heartlands as: ‘Thanks for the last generation of armed struggle, now bog off and let us politicians work out a deal!’

However, the high-wire balancing act the Sinn Fein leadership has to perform is to radically sideline the IRA, but at the same time convince the Provisionals’ ruling Army Council that ‘they really haven’t gone away’ – an observation made famous by Adams at a post-ceasefire republican rally.

Many grassroots republican activists must be privately questioning what they devoted almost 30 years of armed struggle to. Was all that suffering by republican prisoners and families simply to run the education and health departments of Northern Ireland?

During the time of the brief power-sharing Executive in 2002, Sinn Fein held the ministries of health and education.

The problem for republicans is that if they are to finally defeat the constitutional nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) at the ballot box, they must capture and hold not just the traditional Catholic working class areas, but the electorally lucrative and growing Catholic middle class in the North.

With a Westminster election looming within the next 18 months, Sinn Fein is poised to capture the SDLP’s three remaining Commons seats of Foyle, South Down, and Newry and Armagh. Sinn Fein is also on the brink of its biggest electoral achievement in the Republic of Ireland since the post-Great War General Election when it took the majority of Irish seats.

If Sinn Fein can mirror its European and local government successes in the South of Ireland in next year’s expected Irish General Election for Dail seats, there is a strong possibility the party could become a leading contender for coalition government with the largest Southern party, Fianna Fail … but only if it cleans up the Provos!

The Provisional IRA needs restructuring. It needs to deliver the double blow of convincing unionism it no longer exists as a terrorist organisation, whilst at the same time providing a network of communications for republican hardliners.

Urging republicans to copy the British Army model of forming regimental associations may seem the talks of traitors. It could also be interpreted as insulting by organisations such as the Royal British Legion, whose primary aim is to maintain contact between former soldiers of legitimate army units.

But what would be so wrong in nationalist terms of revamping the IRA into the Irish Republican Association. After all, when the part-time police force dominated by Protestants, the B Specials, disbanded in 1970, thousands of unionists flocked to swell the ranks of the Ulster Special Constabulary Association.

And in the 1990s, after the merger of the British Army’s Protestant-dominated Ulster Defence Regiment with the Royal Irish Rangers to form the Royal Irish Regiment, an UDR Association quickly emerged. Similar associations have also been formed within the police to mark the Royal Ulster Constabulary and RUC Reserve.

The Provisionals would also be copying the famous International Brigade which fought the fascist dictator Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Whilst that conflict ended generations ago, the sacrifice of the members of that Brigade is honoured through old comrades’ groups.

The Provisionals – because they are based in Western Europe – need to distance themselves from the modern-day Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalist terrorists who use suicide bombers and mass slaughter techniques to further their so-called causes.

The republican movement needs to urgently convince middle class Northern Ireland it is no longer a threat to society. If Sinn Fein is to be viewed as a truly democratic organisation by Protestants in the same way the African National Congress became trusted by whites in South Africa, then the IRA has got to permanently go away.

But to totally disband the armed wing without replacing it with some form of disciplined structure will only play into the hands of republican dissidents, such as the Continuity and Real IRAs.

The republican leadership of Adams and Mid Ulster MP Martin McGuinness need to make a bold statement – not about the disbanding of the IRA, but to restructure republicanism’s physical force volunteers into an Irish Republican Association.