The world is now a very different place

Following his comments on Morning Ireland, journalist and author Ed Moloney expanded on his analysis in Saturday’s Irish Times, and set the scene for the decision that must now be made by the Irish and British governments – This may well be the time to call the IRA’s bluff, but are Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern made of the right stuff?

Ed Moloney’s article in full –

War and Peace

And so the dance, the tiresome shuffle resumes. Having kicked its peace-process partners in the teeth with December’s Northern Bank raid – just one of several such blows last year, according to the Taoiseach – the IRA and Sinn Féin leadership don the mantle of victimhood in protest at being blamed, withdraw their decommissioning offer and retreat to sulk.

By this stage, counting the number of times P. O’Neill has stormed out of Gen de Chastelain’s office in protest at this or that slight in recent years is probably a task beyond most people, but on each occasion events have followed almost exactly the same pattern. Alarmed by the turn of events the governments behave like spurned lovers. At first they utter angry words, but then they pursue Sinn Féin and the IRA with the political equivalent of flowers and chocolates, offering yet more concessions to coax them back into the process.

With the accommodating but sadly abused David Trimble on hand to assist, negotiations are renewed only to end in disappointment or another incident in Colombia, Castlereagh, Kelly’s Cellars in Belfast, or elsewhere sparking another crisis; and so the dreary waltz drifts on, repeating itself endlessly. It has been like Groundhog Day but with a touch of menace.

All this has been enormously to Sinn Féin’s benefit. Victimhood reaps nationalist votes, the governments are made to look like weak fools, unionism is divided, the Provisionals are rewarded for moving slightly closer to the peaceful politics they supposedly signed fully up to many years before and still the IRA survives, ready to be traded, but never delivered, over and over again. The Provisionals even have a name for all this – the Tactical Use of Armed Struggle, or TUAS.

It is a brilliant stratagem and to its architects, Gerry Adams and the clever people in his think tank must go the plaudits. Better than anyone else they realise it works so well because the British and Irish governments both fear that the IRA, if sufficiently provoked, will return to war and the peace process will become history.

That’s why the decommissioning offer has now been withdrawn.

This peace process is partly modelled on the Cold War diplomacy of the 1960s in which either the US or the Soviet Union would make a unilateral concession knowing that the other would have to reciprocate or look bad to the rest of the world. It worked and saved the planet from nuclear destruction.

This week’s move by the IRA is designed to signal that our own process might be in reverse gear; that if the British and Irish governments react with an equivalent response, so may the IRA, and bit by bit we could fall back into the abyss.

To add teeth to the implied threat, the IRA statement announcing the move was full of angry language, making reference to the ceasefire breakdown of 1996 and including promises not to remain “quiescent” and “to protect to the best of our ability the rights of republicans”, a hint at the possible use of violence. That was followed by a warning not to “underestimate the seriousness of the situation”, while at a Belfast press conference the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams refused to discuss the stability of the cessation, thereby implying that it might not hold. The overall message, albeit unspoken, is unmistakable.

THIS SORT OF sabre-rattling has worked time and again, but strangely, few people question whether the assumption behind this stratagem, that the IRA can go back to war in a meaningful way, has much basis now. It is perhaps beyond time for the governments to take a long, hard look at this issue and, if appropriate, to adjust their own strategy accordingly.

To begin with, this particular crisis has been surrounded with speculation about divisions within the leadership of the IRA and rumours that the organisation’s “hard men” have been enraged both by the decommissioning demands of the DUP leader, Rev Ian Paisley and the eagerness of both governments to blame the IRA for a robbery they say they did not commit. The impression has gained ground that Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness are on the defensive and may lose control of the IRA.

The known facts suggest that such an assertion is highly doubtful. The key body in the IRA is its seven-man army council which determines the organisation’s policy, including whether or not to call off ceasefires. In IRA ranks, the army council is regarded as the real government of Ireland, the inheritors of the all-Ireland mandate bestowed on the Second Dáil of 1921 and its authority is questioned at peril. He who controls the army council controls the IRA.

From what is known about the army council’s current makeup, the Adams-McGuinness faction hold at very least a comfortable five to two majority. Three of the five are associated with Sinn Féin and the other two are Belfast IRA men who earned their places by proving their loyalty to Adams. Of the two who are not known for their enthusiasm for politics (they hail, unsurprisingly, from South Armagh) one, who is also the chief of staff, has a track record of siding with, or at least not opposing the Adams-McGuinness group when pushed into a corner. If the IRA was to go back to war it would not be because the Adams-McGuinness bloc had been outvoted or overwhelmed – although we would be encouraged to think that – but because they supported such a move.

Figures associated with the Adams-McGuinness group have controlled the army council since the late 1970s and this has meant that key posts elsewhere in the IRA have been filled with people chosen for their loyalty to the leadership as much as anything else. The post of Northern commander has been crucial in this respect, for he appoints local commanders in the IRA’s most important theatre. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when the peace process was revving up, that post was held by a figure synonymous with the process and the result was that when a split happened, in 1997, all but a handful of IRA members in the North, where it mattered, stayed loyal.

That split, and the ceasefire breakdown which preceded it, happened because the Adams-McGuinness leadership had failed to secure control of one key IRA body, the executive, an advisory body elected by the rank and file which also chooses army council members. In the mid-1990s the executive was dominated by the IRA quartermaster general, Michael McKevitt and by the director of engineering, a Dubliner, who led a revolt against the Adams peace strategy which brought a brief renewal of violence but failed in its primary aim of ousting the Adams-McGuinness leadership. That led them to depart to found the Real IRA.

The Real IRA’s strongest support came from Southern units of the Provisional IRA but the failure to garner support in the North, along with the disastrous Omagh bombing and an associated quarrel with potential allies in the other dissident grouping, the Continuity IRA, sidelined the dissidents and took enormous pressure off Adams and McGuinness. Since then the current IRA leadership has taken pains to ensure that the executive’s make-up is such that no repeat rebellion is possible.

IN THE YEARS since the departure of the dissidents, the IRA and Sinn Féin leadership have taken their organisations in directions that not long before would have been dismissed as unthinkable and judged certain to provoke bloody feuds.

The principle of consent, the defiance of which defined the post-1921 IRA, has been embedded by the twin referendums of 1998; Sinn Féin has taken seats at Stormont, the parliament the IRA bombed out of existence in 1972, and party luminaries have occupied Cabinet posts under the Crown.

Acceptance of the North’s policing system is on the agenda, while the IRA has done that which we were told it would never do and began, however unsatisfactorily, to decommission its weapons. Vast swathes of ideological ground have been abandoned without a peep of protest from the grassroots nor a hint of rebellion or division. The conclusion is inescapable: those who direct the Provisionals’ political policy also exercise complete control of the military strategy. Talk of splits should be accompanied by generous servings of salt.

Nobody doubts that the IRA can go back to violence and could explode bombs and shoot people. This is what PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde means when he says the IRA has the capacity for violence. But that is not the real question. What really matters is whether the IRA has the ability to sustain a lengthy and effective campaign of violence of sufficient intensity to change or influence British and Irish government policy. Otherwise there seems little point in abandoning the peace process.

Here, the track record of the last 30 or so years strongly suggests that the IRA would face a dismal future if it did return to violence. Ever since the Treaty negotiations of 1921 it has been axiomatic in IRA thinking that ceasefires weaken and sap fighting ability. Volunteers relax their guard, public expectations of peace rise as toleration of violence declines while activists get rusty and lose their passion for the fight. Michael Collins understood that and it is one reason he agreed to sign Lloyd George’s accord.

The Provisionals have learned all this the hard way during these Troubles. There have been four ceasefires since 1969 and the lesson from the three that broke down is that each time the IRA was weaker or at greater disadvantage afterwards than when they went in to ceasefire.

The first and shortest ceasefire in 1972 was resisted by those who now lead the IRA for precisely those reasons and even though they succeeded in returning to violence, the IRA lost valuable no-go areas in Belfast and Derry shortly afterwards. In 1975 there was a longer ceasefire which so enervated the IRA that the British were able to criminalise it and came close to securing a military victory. The 1994 ceasefire collapsed after 18 months with the spectacular bombing of Canary Wharf but the campaign that followed quickly degenerated, in the memorable words of one RUC officer, into “a pathetic, grubby little war” in which the principal casualty was the IRA’s credibility as a fighting force.

The current ceasefire has lasted seven-and-a-half years, much longer than any previous cessation, and the IRA’s pool of activists is as many years older, as well as being thicker around the midriff and greyer at the temples. Not only must their physical ability to wage war once again be questioned but also their enthusiasm for it. They and their families have got happily accustomed to living without the constant threat of sudden death or lengthy imprisonment while the communities from which they sprang have likewise grown fond of normality and are unlikely to welcome a return to the bad old days. To be sure the IRA still takes in new recruits, but these are ceasefire soldiers and past experience shows that ceasefire soldiers disappear like snow off a ditch in spring when war starts again.

TO ALL THIS must be added the considerable political price Sinn Féin would pay if hostilities were renewed. The party’s political growth in the North was fuelled by Catholic voters who switched from the SDLP to Sinn Féin to encourage the move to peace. Abandoning the peace process might well reverse that. In the South, Sinn Féin’s growth has been assisted in no small measure by the fact that many of its new supporters have no knowledge or memory of the daily atrocities and funerals that constituted life in the Ireland of the 1970s and 1980s. But start the killing again and that will certainly change.

The world is also a very different place than it was in 1996.

For one thing, 9/11 happened and there is no doubting American and Irish-American hostility to terrorism of any stripe. If the IRA went back to war not only would Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness be denied entry to the US and the clout and dollars that come with it but they would be consigned to a pantheon of villainy alongside people such as Osama Bin Laden. Not a happy prospect for people who have grown used to swanning around Congress and Fifth Avenue.

The renewal of violence in 1996 made the point well: the IRA can start the war again, but sustaining it is a different matter. It would be the same now, except exponentially worse. Should the IRA defy common sense and go back to violence the most sensible response from the governments might be to eschew concessions and let events take their course, sure in the knowledge that demonstrating its own impotency to itself might be the cure the IRA needs.

The problem with this is that up to now both the British and Irish governments have behaved not just as if the IRA can return to effective warfare but as if it has a thermonuclear device secreted somewhere in the sewers of London. This may well be the time to call the IRA’s bluff, but are Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern made of the right stuff?

© The Irish Times

Ed Moloney is author of A Secret History of the IRA