Have they gone away or haven’t they? This is the question in the minds
of a lot of people in Britain and Ireland in the aftermath of the IRA’s declaration
that its armed struggle to expel the British from Ireland had ended.
For some it is the endgame. For others it is more of the old ambiguity.
Lurking in the back of our memories is the fear that we will again hear
someone reminding us — as Gerry Adams did in the aftermath of the IRA
1994 cessation of violence –“They haven’t gone away you know”.
The truth is, they haven’t, and they have been here before. They
promised a “complete cessation of violence” 11 years ago. What we got
was an improvement — a great improvement — but it was far from a
complete cessation of violence. Perhaps it is inevitable that this
peace process is always going to be a matter of two steps forward and
one step backwards.
Over the past week we have had two different kinds of analysis of what
has happened. The two governments of Britain and Ireland have taken the
positive approach. British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that this
was an event of “unparalleled magnitude”. The Irish Taoiseach, Bertie
Ahern, was somewhat more guarded and welcomed it as an outcome of what
the governments have been working towards since the 1994 ceasefire.
On the negative side of the spectrum, Ian Paisley, the leader of the
Democratic Unionists, now the majority party among Protestant voters,
greeted the statement with characteristic scepticism and anticipates
that the IRA will again “revert to type” as it has done after previous
“historic” statements. Moderate Unionist Sir Reg Empey says that only
time will tell whether or not we have a cause for celebration. This in
fact is the only sensible position. While the positive spin of the two
governments and Sinn Fein is understandable — and even desirable as a
way of building a positive expectation — it would be naïve to think
that serious political work has not still to be done to make this
opportunity into a stable reality.
If the danger of reverting to type by the mainstream IRA — even on a
one step backwards basis — is one source of fear, the other is the
classical danger of the famed Irish “split”. This is sometimes jokingly
said to be the first item on the agenda of any new Irish political
party. But in this case it is no joke. The single greatest atrocity of
the 36 years of violent strife on the island of Ireland was the bombing
in Omagh with its death toll of 31 — including unborn twins in their
mother’s womb — by the “Real” IRA. This small but lethal organisation
had split off from Sinn Fein-IRA after the 1994 ceasefire.
This is now the greatest fear. If the past year has shown us anything,
it is that the IRA may not have the solid command structure that it
would like us to think it has. The Northern Bank heist in Belfast
earlier this year, at about £26 million, the biggest in British
history, and the murder by IRA men of a Catholic, Robert McCartney, in
a pub brawl — offer ample evidence of rather loose discipline. No one
has yet been brought to justice for the McCartney murder . The real
reason for this is that Sinn Fein is unable to overcome the opposition
within its own grass roots to the idea of delivering the perpetrators
of this crime to justice. Given this situation it is likely that if
dissidents within the organisation have a mind to carry on the “war” on
their own authority there may be little that Sinn Fein-IRA’s leadership
can do about it.
It is for this reason that there are vehement protests from Unionists
this week — and grave misgivings by others — that the dismantling of
security towers and a scaling down of British army regiments is
premature. We can only hope that the gestures being made by the British
Government to reciprocate the gestures in the IRA’s statement do not
blow up in their faces.
So the degree of euphoria which greeted the IRA’s statement in its
first 24 hours has subsided. Everyone is now getting back to a more
familiar routine of living in hope, waiting and pushing for positive
responses, avoiding going too far too fast for fear of leaving a
dangerous rump in its rear. It is all very tiresome but it may be the
only way that we will eventually arrive at a lasting peace.
Michael Kirke is a Dublin journalist.