IRA has been around for too long

Anthony McIntyre received some flak last night for suggesting that some of IRA volunteers accused of having been involved in the Northern Bank raid would never consider committing any non-political crime. However, Alex Kane in his Newletter column last week questions both this image of the honest volunteer and, more fundamentally, the political seriousness of their organisation.By Alex Kane

The usually pithy P.O’Neill had a moment of unusual verbosity last week, when he delivered a very long, whingeing, self-justifying round-robin; and then, when he didn’t hear knees knocking, or the sound of us wetting our pants, responded with a bitchy little two-line instruction to take him seriously. Picture a balaclava-clad Cruella de Ville and you get the true measure of this fascist. We are being threatened by a comic book prat, who hides behind a mask, praying desperately that the shadow of the gunman and the ghost of things past will be enough to make us dance to his one note tune.

Mr. O’Neill’s statements have tended to require the political equivalent of the Rosetta Stone to enable journalists and governments to make sense of the hieroglyphics which pass for the thought processes of armed republicanism. In the early days of the fondly remembered peace process many happy hours could be spent parsing and interpreting the statements, to take from them exactly what you wanted to take from them. Not the latest ones, though, which are a stolid combination of threat, self-pity, semantic codswallop and downright lies.

All of which suggests that Mr. O’Neill is a worried man. His first statement, ten days ago, was written more for the “volunteers” and Sinn Fein’s core vote, than for the general public. The problem, of course, is that the IRA has little or nothing to show for the past thirty-five years. It is no closer to a united Ireland than it was in 1970. Northern Ireland is more firmly entrenched as an integral part of the United Kingdom, with Articles 2 and 3 gone and partition secure. The best that Sinn Fein can hope for is a power-sharing deal involving Ian Paisley as First Minister!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Mr. O’Neill has discovered that his views no longer carry the same sort of weight outside the ranks of the psychotic faithful. And, let’s face it, a terrorist organization which doesn’t scare people anymore, is a terrorist organization which should consider giving up and pushing off. No wonder O’Neill had to issue his reminder that “they haven’t gone away, you know.”

Yet the reality is that while the IRA may still be here, there is nowhere for it to go. Oh yes, it certainly has enough explosives, weapons and volunteers to kickstart the campaign, but to what purpose? It’s not going to bring a united Ireland. It’s not going to bully unionists into abandoning their beliefs, or the Union. And, after the past seven years, when first the UUP, and then the DUP, moderated and moved towards inclusive government, the IRA cannot seriously believe that a UK government would become an active persuader for disengagement.

Also, whatever the most hardline of the myth-drenched volunteers may believe, there is no desire in the republican heartlands for a return to the bad old days. They don’t want to see the fortified bases, the watch-towers, the helicopters and increasing numbers of troops. They don’t want to live in fear of loyalist retaliation, or of another generation of their children being caught up in a war that they know can’t be won. Whatever the IRA may think, the vast majority of republicans now know that there is no “nation once again” on the other side of the bunker.

But the IRA, now reduced to a hardcore gang of bank robbers, smugglers, counterfeiters, drug dealers and neighbourhood bullies, still hopes to scare us and scare the British and Irish governments. This is the toughest political and moral test that either Blair or Ahern will face. The consequences of further appeasement (namely, a meaningless fine today, followed by the promise of new negotiations tomorrow) would be catastrophic for the Agreement, for public confidence and for any hope of delivering a lasting and stable democratic settlement.

The IRA has been around for too long. It has been given every reasonable opportunity to go of its own accord, but has refused to take it. The full power of the British and Irish states must now be deployed to effect a regime change which will remove Mr. O’Neill and his thuggish comrades once and for all. They have to learn that their day isn’t coming.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 12th February 2005