A history of the Provos – part three
by Liam O Ruairc
The so-called ‘peace process’ signalled a major shift for Provisional republicans. On 30 March 1912, eighty years before the Provisionals published Towards A Lasting Peace, Padraig Pearse had already warned republicans about the dangers of ‘peace’: “However dangerous the fight or battle, the peace is much more dangerous. The Irish never lost anything in battle, only their lives. They often lost their good name, honour or reputation in the peace; i.e. they were often put to shame in peace.” The shift from armed struggle to a ‘peace process’ represented essentially the strategic failure of Provisional republicanism disguised as some “new phase of the struggle”.
It is often claimed that in the late 1980s there was a position of ‘stalemate’. According to Adams: “There was a political and military stalemate. While Republicans could prevent a settlement on British government terms, we lacked the political strength to bring the struggle to a decisive conclusion. Military solutions were not an option for either side” (Gerry Adams, Free Ireland: Towards A Lasting Peace, Dingle: Brandon, 1995 pp194-195). Adams had already declared in 1980: “The British have realized that there can be no military victory, it is time that Republicans also realized that there can be no military victory” (Seamus Boyle, Radical update of Eire Nua, AP/RN, 26 January 1980).
However, the situation had reached not a stalemate as Adams argues, but the point where the British state had constrained the operational capacity of the IRA so much that the organisation had little option but to call a cessation. The IRA had to win the war; the British state only had to prevent the IRA from winning the war. In that sense there wasn’t a stalemate; the IRA’s 1994 cessation of operations can be interpreted as a victory for the British government (Alonso, pp150ff).
From the second half of the 1980s, the IRA was becoming weaker and weaker, militarily and politically. It was not a ‘stalemate’, as it is claimed, which encouraged the movement towards peace, but the fact that the British state applied pressure to the point where the political options of the Provisional Republican Movement were narrowed to the peace process. In 1993, Ruairi O Bradaigh stated: “If the worst were come to the worst, i.e. political and military defeat. . . then the revolutionary republican attitude should be as in 1923, 1945 and 1962: leave the way open for the next revolutionary wave and do not put obstacles in its path by constructing a Six-County Free State-type situation with the British occupation forces in the GAA and nationalists inveigled into a re-named paramilitary police force” (“The Irish people must be allowed to speak as one unit”, Saoirse, December 1993, pp8-9). However the political and the military defeat of the Provisional movement resulted in the second scenario rather than the first.
Between August 1985 and September 1986, the IRA received from Libya four shipments with more than 150 tons of arms and explosives. This was the largest influx of weapons the IRA had ever received. Another 150 tons of weapons was intercepted by French customs on the Eksund ship in November 1987. The most significant part of the shipments were four tons of Semtex military explosive, which enabled the IRA to try to escalate its campaign to new levels. First used on 28 October 1986, Semtex was twice as powerful as Frangex, the high explosive most commonly used by the IRA until then. ANFO, the most frequently encountered home-made explosive was only up to 70 percent as powerful, while ANNIE and other mixes had only 40 percent of the explosive potential. Until the ceasefires of 1994 and 1997, every bomb, mortar and rocket made by the IRA incorporated Semtex. The number of explosions in the north rose from 254 in 1986 to 384 in 1987 and 458 in 1988 – the highest for 7 years while the weight of explosive used was the greatest for 11 years. But the British Army, the IRA’s prime target, was becoming harder to hit: 21 soldiers had been killed in the six counties in 1988, it was 12 in 1989, 7 in 1990, 5 in 1991 and 4 in 1992 (Liam Clarke and Kathryne Johnston, Martin McGuiness: From Guns to Government, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2001, p190). The offensive in Northern Ireland was becoming unsustainable. By the late 1980s, 70 percent of all planned IRA operations in the six counties had to be aborted for fear of detection. Out of the remaining operations, only a fifth were successful, security force activity preventing the rest (Gary McGladdery, The Provisional IRA in England: The Bombing Campaign 1973-1997, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2006, p142).
It is thus not surprising that in 1992, the IRA killed almost as many of its own members – six – as suspected informers as it did soldiers and policemen (Holland, 1999, p328). Another estimate claims that throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, about nine out of every ten IRA operations were aborted or failed (O Brien, p157). According to Ed Moloney, by 1994 eight out of ten operations were known to intelligence agencies (Moloney, 2007, p527). The security forces were able to seize a huge number of IRA arms dumps: 76 in 1987, 66 in 1988 and more than 60 in 1989 (Kevin Toolis, Rebel Hearts: Journeys within the IRA’s soul, London: Picador, 1995, p215). The IRA was increasingly relying on improvised weaponry and home-made explosives. The IRA became increasingly dependent upon its South Armagh units, “because the RUC was getting on top of it everywhere else. South Armagh was the one safe base they had” (Harnden, p320). Five of the six British soldiers killed in the north in 1993 were killed there.
The IRA needed to spread its campaign in England and Continental Europe as, at that stage, British soldiers were becoming harder to kill in Northern Ireland. From January 1988 to June 1990, there were 17 IRA attacks on the continent, nine used Semtex to construct bombs that generally proved ineffectual and the other eight were a series of shooting incidents that tended to focus on the wrong target or hit an innocent transient (Bowyer Bell, 1997, p614). During the course of attacks on off-duty British army forces in Germany and the Benelux in 1988-1990, the IRA killed 11 people; including a six-months old baby and the German wife of a soldier as well as two Australian tourists who were mistaken for military personnel. The IRA’s England campaign succeeded in killing 14 servicemen between 1988 and 1990, eleven in a single bomb attack on the Royal Marine School of Music in Kent on 22 September 1989. It also assassinated Ian Gow MP, Thatcher’s close friend and a political ally of the Unionists on 30 July 1990. The British Army was so much on top of the IRA in the north that in December 1989, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, warned that servicemen abroad were at greater risk than those stationed in Northern Ireland (David McKittrick, Endgame: The Search for Peace in Northern Ireland, Belfast: The Blackstaff Press, 1994, p234). “The safest thing to be in Ulster in the 1990s was a member of the security forces, as fewer and fewer of them fell victim to Republican groups” (Holland, 1999, p229). Not only were British military casualties in the North at their lowest level since the 1970s, but by the early 1990s the death of a British soldier in Northern Ireland hardly registered on the political Richter Scale (Harnden, p318).
Because the British Army was ahead of the IRA in technological terms, the Provisionals mostly succeeded killing soldiers when they were off-duty or soft targets, or in operations that were public disasters. Six British soldiers taking part in a charity event in Lisburn were killed on 15 June 1988 in a bomb attack on their van. Eight more soldiers died on a bomb attack on their bus at Ballygawley on 20 August 1988 as they travelled back to their barracks after leave. On 24 October 1990, the IRA forced a civilian working for the British Army (his family being taken hostage) to drive a bomb to an army checkpoint in Derry, where it exploded, killing him and five British soldiers. On the same day, another ‘human bomb’ killed a soldier in Newry. The ‘human bomb’ tactic caused universal revulsion and there remain unanswered questions about the role of British intelligence in the ‘human bombs’ attacks (Henry McDonald, “UK agents ‘did have role in IRA bomb atrocities’”, The Observer, 10 September 2006).
On 2 November 1991 a bomb at Musgrave Hospital in Belfast killed two army medics and injured several children (Holland, 1999, pp227-228). The revulsion caused by these incidents fortified the peace camp in the IRA and weakened those in favour of continuing armed struggle. “By actions such as this and the revulsion they provoked within the community, the IRA inadvertently strengthened the hand of those within the Republican Movement who argued that an alternative to armed struggle had to be found” (Taylor, 1998, p317).
Parallel to this, PIRA was embarrassed by a series of attacks which led to a large loss of civilian life in Northern Ireland, the most politically damaging being the detonation of a bomb at the Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen on 8 November 1987 which killed eleven civilians. In the nine months after Enniskillen, the IRA killed 18 civilians in botched operations, a rate higher than usual (Moloney, p341).
Electorally, the party’s vote went down, losing the battle with constitutional nationalism both in absolute and relative terms. In the south, despite dropping abstentionism, the party failed to make any breakthrough. In the 1987 Leinster House elections, Sinn Fein won no seats and its 27 candidates got 32,933 votes or 1.7 percent of the total vote. In 1989, it was reduced to 20,003 first preference votes, or 1.2 percent of the vote for its 14 candidates. In 1992, the party’s 41 candidates got 26,372 votes -1.6% (English, p244). In the 26 counties, in the 1991 local government elections, Sinn Fein fielded 59 candidates but only won 6 seats out of 883 and a mere 0.7% of the vote. In the north, the party’s vote was in decline and the gap between SF and the SDLP was getting wider and wider. There was no more chance of overtaking the SDLP. In the 1989 district councils elections in the north, the SDLP got 129,557 votes (21%) and 121 seats (an increase of 20) whereas Sinn Fein got 69,032 votes (11.2%) and 43 seats (a drop of 16). If, in 1985, the SDLP had won 42 more seats than Sinn Fein, by 1993 they had won 75 more seats with 138,619 votes (22%) and 127 seats to Sinn Fein’s 78,092 votes (12.4%) and 51 seats. In the European elections of 1989, John Hume humiliated Sinn Fein with 136,335 votes (25.5%) almost three times Danny Morrison’s 48,987 votes (9.1%), and the Sinn Fein vote had gone below 50,000 for the first time since 1982. The 1992 Westminster elections marked the lowest point of Sinn Fein’s Armalite and Ballot Box strategy. If the 1987 Westminster elections saw Sinn Fein’s vote drop from the 1983 elections to 83,389 votes (11.4%) compared to the SDLP’s 154,087 (21.1%), Adams had nevertheless managed to keep the West Belfast seat; this time Adams lost his West Belfast seat to the rival nationalist party. In 1992, the SDLP polled 184,445 votes (23.5%) compared to Sinn Fein’s 78,291 (10%). From a peak of 42% of the Nationalist vote in 1983, Sinn Fein had now fallen to a low of 29.8% in 1992.
This led prominent Sinn Fein member Richard McAuley to conclude: “We’re not going to realize our full potential as long as the war is going on in the North and as long as Sinn Fein is presented the way it is with regard to armed struggle and violence. I think that it is a reality that perhaps we weren’t conscious or aware of back in the early 80s when we first involved in electoral politics” (Robin Wilson, “Time for Magnanimity”, Fortnight, September 1992).
The state was also putting the IRA under pressure. In 1987 and 1988 alone, 26 IRA volunteers lost their lives, 14 shot dead by the SAS (English, p260). On 8 May 1987, an entire East Tyrone IRA unit containing some of the IRA’s most experienced activists was ambushed by the SAS at Loughall. Eight were killed in what was the IRA’s biggest loss since 1921. On 6 March 1988, three of the IRA’s most experienced operatives were killed unarmed by the SAS in Gibraltar, where they allegedly were preparing a bomb attack on a British Army band. There remain strong suspicions of betrayal in those two incidents (Moloney, Chapter eleven, passim).
After Loughgall, between 1987 and 1992, IRA activists “were being killed five times faster. This acceleration could be a coincidence, but that hardly seems possible. Despite appalling headline atrocities, the numbers revealed that the Provisionals were nearly finished everywhere they operated. In the summer of 1988, they killed soldiers at twice their average rate. In 1989, they killed twenty-four; the total halved in each of the next two years” (George Brock, “Who really brought peace to Belfast?”, Times Literary Supplement, 27 February 2008). Over 600 republican prisoners were in jail, probably the highest the figure had been since 1975 (McGladdery, p150).
Reorganised, armed, trained and directed by the British state, Loyalists groups intensified their campaign. During the 1980s, Loyalist groups had been responsible for about 25 percent of conflict related deaths, but from the early 1990s onwards they were responsible for well over 50 percent outgunning republicans. In the six year period from January 1988 to their ceasefire on 13 October 1994, they were responsible for 229 deaths, 207 of which were sectarian assassinations. Between 1989 and 1993, loyalists killed 26 members of the IRA, Sinn Fein and relatives of republicans (Taylor, 1999, pp213-214).
As republicans and random Catholics were targeted, the IRA was drawn into occasionally striking back at loyalists. On 17 January 1992, eight Protestant building workers were killed when their van was destroyed by a bomb in Teebane as they returned from working at an army base. The IRA tried to justify the attack by saying the victims were collaborators, but the attack can be interpreted as an unofficial retaliation for sectarian attacks. The bombing of a fish shop on the Shankill Road on 23 October 1993 was an attempt to kill the leadership of the Ulster Defence Association which went disastrously wrong, instead killing nine Protestant civilians and one of the bombers. The massive killings of republicans and Catholics put significant pressure on the organization to take the road it did. “These lethal attacks on both wings of the republican movement by the SAS and loyalist paramilitaries, as well as conventional attrition by the police and the army through the courts were no doubt an important contributory factor in the IRA’s decision to call a ceasefire in 1994” (Taylor, 1998, p311).
When on 30 March 1992 Adams claimed that Morrison’s comments about ‘armalite and ballot box’ were outdated and McGuiness said that the expression had been replaced by “with a ballot paper in one hand and a solution in the other” (“A ballot paper in one hand and a solution in the other”, AP/RN, 2 April 1992, p2), that conclusion had only been reached because their movement was losing, both militarily (the armalite) and electorally (the ballot box). It was the British state which succeeded in narrowing the options of the Provisional movement to this, rather than the IRA narrowing the political options of the British government to withdrawal. The British state had also encouraged the emergence of Adams and McGuiness, a leadership they could do a deal with. The intelligence services manipulated paramilitary groups:
“They were never in complete control, but were often able to pick who would rise and who would fall in the leadership of republican and loyalist groups. Recently, Gerry Adams demanded an inquiry into claims by a former police officer that Special Branch knew of a planned UDA attack on his life in 1984. Adams knows from earlier disclosures that Special Branch and military intelligence had in fact acted to save his life by doctoring the bullets fired at him and intercepting the killers. Probing such issues raises the uncomfortable question of why Adams was saved by the British Army while other republicans were being targeted and killed. Nobody could suggest he was a British agent or even knew of the protection afforded him, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the securocrats were able to play favourites with the republican leadership on the basis of information supplied by high-level informants” (Liam Clarke, “Truth will out if we have a mind to help it”, The Sunday Times 24 December 2006).
This was not the only time that British intelligence was to save Adams from assassination by Loyalists (Moloney, 2007, pp578-579). From the British state’s point of view, this made sense as Adams later admitted the retirement of the IRA had been a long-term goal of Sinn Féin’s peace process strategy: “Part of our effort was to get the IRA to go away. If you look at the history of physical force republicanism, whether it’s Eamon deValera or Mick Collins or Kevin Boland or Prionsias De Rossa or Tomas MacGiolla or Ruairi O Bradaigh or whoever,those people who left republicanism or tried to develop some alternative all failed. Physical force republicanism continued despite attempts to throttle it or Fianna Fail-it out of existence. Part of our endeavour – and it’s unprecedented – is to bring an end to physical force republicanism. . . It’s an open secret. I have said within republican circles that one of the objectives of this process is to see an IRA out of existence. When I say that we want to bring an end to physical force republicanism, that clearly means bringing an end to the organisation or the vehicle of physical force republicanism” (“‘Trimble knows the old days are over’: Gerry Adams”, Sunday Business Post, 28 September 2003).
The same goes for McGuiness. In their biography of Martin McGuiness, Liam Clarke and Kathryne Johnston write that it is possible “that McGuiness was selected at an early stage by the British authorities as someone who could prove useful, and was preserved in a leadership position with future negotiations in mind. It is standard international intelligence practice to leave the leadership of paramilitary or subversive groups intact. . . . Preserving the leadership does not prevent the security services from attacking the organisation itself, narrowing the leadership’s options and even, when necessary, taking out more militant factions who show serious signs of escalating the campaign and threatening the leadership’s grip on the levers of power” (Clarke and Johnston, pp254-255).
Henry McDonald points that “the British state, via MI5’s secret pre-ceasefire talks in Derry with McGuiness and missions involving Downing Street officials, has been in constant touch with the republican movement and in many cases has influenced public policy to make life as easy as possible for a Sinn Fein leadership it saw as genuinely interested in ending ‘armed struggle’. . . The securocrats. . . have, in truth, been among the best facilitators and supporters of the Sinn Fein peace strategy” (Henry McDonald, “Today the Provisionals embrace ‘Northern Ireland’”, The Observer, 28 January 2007).
As Malachi O Doherty concludes: “It was fortunate for Adams and McGuiness, and those around them, that the British opted for a strategy of infiltrating and managing the IRA rather than destroying it. If the British had changed that policy at any time…Adams and McGuiness would probably just have gone the way of INLA leader Ronnie Bunting, shot dead in his home by slick assassins that most republicans sincerely believe were from the SAS” (Malachi O Doherty, “Martin McGuiness – what did you do?”, The Belfast Telegraph, 25 April 2008).
Their position of increasing weakness compelled the Provisional movement to envisage a strategic alliance with constitutional nationalism. Sinn Fein, in its own words, was searching for “an effective unarmed constitutional strategy” (quoted in Feeney, p380). Central to the new strategy (outlined in the 1992 document Towards a Lasting Peace) was the idea that the pan-nationalist alliance of the Irish government, Sinn Fein and the SDLP could pressurize the British government in a diplomatic offensive to ‘persuade’ the Unionists that their interest was in a united Ireland. The Provisionals spent a long time in the early 1990s building that pan-nationalist coalition through secret talks with Fianna Fail and the Irish government, and through open discussions with the SDLP, in particular the Hume-Adams initiatives of 1993. When the Provisional movement finally succeeded in building an alliance with those other political forces, it was not on its own terms: for this ‘national consensus’ to be possible, it had to accept considerable sections of the SDLP and Fianna Fail’s constitutional nationalist agenda.
1) The emphasis was no longer on the traditional objective of a British government declaration of intent to withdraw, but upon its recognition that “the Irish people as a whole have a right to self-determination” (Sinn Fein, Towards A Lasting Peace, 1992).
While in appearance being in continuity with the traditional republican demand, the concept represented a shift in position, because the constitutional nationalist understanding of self-determination allows for a degree of ambiguity around the means of exercising that right. For example this means that if a majority of people in Ireland as a whole decide that there will be no united Ireland until a majority of people in the north decide to, that constitutes national self-determination rather than a partitionist compromise.
2) Consequently, the Provisional movement now stated that the exercise of self determination is a matter for agreement between the people of Ireland. This signalled a profound change.
The 23 April 1993 Hume-Adams statement contained the following two crucial sentences: “The exercise of self-determination is a matter for agreement between the people of Ireland. It is the search for that agreement and the means of achieving it on which we will be concentrating” (Joint Statements from Gerry Adams and John Hume, AP/RN 30 September 1993, p8). Never before had the Republican Movement stated publicly that there had to be agreement on the exercise of self-determination. That meant that any accommodation had to be based on terms acceptable to the Unionist community. It meant that the unionist community had a veto over whatever was to happen. In other words, it was the Unionist veto rewritten.
3) The Provisional movement now recognised that the consent and allegiance of Unionists are essential if a lasting peace is to be established. While still arguing that the unionist veto must go, they were “seeking to obtain the consent of a majority of people in the North” (Towards A Lasting Peace, p12).
However, the difficulty with this is that the unionist right to consent is precisely what republicans have always claimed constituted that veto: unity by consent of the majority of the North of Ireland was nothing more than a partitionist fudge.
4) Last but not least, the Provisionals revised their analysis of the British presence. Rather than being seen as the cause of the problem it was now seen as part of the solution, the British government now given a neutral if not a positive role by “joining the ranks of the persuaders” (Towards A Lasting Peace) and convincing the Unionists that their future lies in a united Ireland.
The Provisional Movement’s new strategy as outlined in Towards a Lasting Peace “marked in black and white the huge sea change that had taken place in republican thinking”; the document “was important not only for what it said but for what it did not say. Gone was the colonial and imperialist analysis and even more fundamental, gone was the traditional demand for British withdrawal”; “In 1972, the IRA gave the British three years to leave; in 1987 Sinn Fein had extended it to the lifetime of one parliament, or five years. By 1992, not only was there no deadline . . . but Sinn Fein acknowledged there was a role for Britain to play in Ireland” (Feeney, p378).
Thus it is not the Dublin government and the SDLP that had come to the republican position, but rather the Provisional movement which had moved to the constitutional nationalist position that Irish self determination would have to be achieved with the consent of the people of the north. When the 1994 IRA internal document “Towards an Un-Armed Strategy” argued that “for the first time in twenty-five years all the major nationalist parties are rowing in roughly the same direction” this was true; only one of those parties, Sinn Fein, had altered course (Murray and Tonge, p188). On top of that, “Fianna Fail was rowing away from its claim to Northern Ireland, and the SDLP was formulating explicit approval of the principle of unionist consent, neither of which could be interpreted as republican advancement” (Jonathan Tonge, “Nationalist Convergence?” in Aaron Edwards and Stephen Bloomer, eds, Transforming the Peace Process in Northern Ireland: from terrorism to democratic politics, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2008, p65).
This “effectively marks the ideological defeat of Provisional Republicanism…and the beginning of its absorption into the wider spectrum of constitutional nationalism” (Holland, 1999, p247). Republicanism had become subsumed within a partitionist nationalist project. The price of the inclusion of republicans in the pan-nationalist alliance was the exclusion of republicanism.
By relying on elements that had always been much more hostile to the IRA than to British involvement in Ireland, the Provisional movement’s anti-partitionist thrust could only be seriously weakened. In seeking an alliance with parties which accept the unionist veto as the foundation of any political settlement, the Adams leadership was implicitly acknowledging that any future political arrangement would be a predominantly internal one, leaving the constitutional status of the six counties unaltered. Parallel to this, the objective of a 32 county socialist republic was given a very ‘ultimate’ nature. A very important departure from previous positions was that the Provisionals now stated that “the British government’s departure must be preceded by a sustained period of peace and will arise out of negotiations” (“It is our job to develop the struggle for freedom – Bodenstown Address, AP/RN 25 June 1992, pp8-9).
In 1993, Martin McGuiness signalled this major compromise on the objective of ‘Brits Out’ when at Bodenstown, he spoke about ‘interim arrangements’, implying that armed struggle might end short of British withdrawal (“There will be no turning back”, AP/RN 24 June 1993, p10). Those interim arrangements would provide a transition (duration unspecified) into the ultimate objective.
Later, in early 1995, Gerry Adams spoke of a ‘transitional phase’ in which there must be ‘maximum democracy’, ‘equality of treatment’ and ‘parity of esteem’ (“Peace means justice – Justice demands freedom”, AP/RN 2 March 1995, pp8-9). Those statements signalled that the Provisional leadership would inevitably attempt to sell any future political agreement as transitional, while ignoring the absence of any concrete transitional mechanisms for democratic political change, thus representing a de facto recognition of British rule in Ireland.
During the 1980s, the Provos had emphasized that they were an intrinsic part of the global wave of anti-imperialist struggles in Palestine, South Africa, Nicaragua, El Salvador etc. “The natural and logical place for Ireland is alongside the Palestinians, the Chileans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans” and “in opposition to Reagan’s backing of repressive regimes in Central America, in opposition to Israel’s policy of genocide against the Palestinian people, and in opposition to the British partition of this country,” declared Gerry Adams (AP/RN, 7 November 1985). Progressive and anti-imperialist movements around the world also manifested an affinity with the Republican struggle in Ireland.
The crisis of actually existing socialism and actually existing national liberation movements at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s had some impact on the political orientation of the Provisional movement. The Sandinistas had been an inspiration for republicans, and when they lost the 1990 elections in Nicaragua, Danny Morrison commented: “The Sandinistas had to come to terms with reality. The pragmatism of the head had to take precedence over the principle of the heart” (Danny Morrison, Then The Walls Came Down: A Prison Journal, Dublin and Cork: Mercier, 1999, p291).
The struggles in South Africa, Palestine and Latin America with which the IRA identified were in a position of weakness and engaged in peace processes. This encouraged the IRA to argue that this was also the way forward in Ireland. Jim Gibney recalls how inspired they were “when we saw the images of Arafat and Rabin and Mandela and de Klerk” making peace in front of the television cameras (Jim Gibney, “Making headlines around the world for right reasons”, The Irish News, 5 April 2007).
If the IRA had been part of the rising anti-imperialist wave, its turn to peace process reflected the crisis of actually existing national liberation movement (Ryan, pp35ff). While the Provisional movement had traditionally been hostile to US imperialism, it now regarded the White House and Irish American business leaders as allies. “Dumping the anti-American, anti-imperialist chic was part of a plan to use the Americans to politically encircle unionism. But at the end of more than a decade of political negotiations. . . the decision to wrap themselves up with the Stars and Stripes ended up instead becoming a trap for the republican movement” (Henry McDonald, Gunsmoke and Mirrors: How Sinn Fein dressed up defeat as victory, Dublin: Gill&Macmillan, 2008, pp158ff).
In the early 1990s, the Provisional leadership engaged in secret talks with the British government. This, as well as other positive signals from the British and Irish governments, led the Provisional to believe that at some point in the 1990s London and Dublin agreed that the old policy of excluding republicans was futile and that the only strategic alternative was one of inclusion in dialogue and negotiations. What goes unmentioned is that “the strategic objective was to include republicans while excluding republicanism” (Anthony McIntyre, “Why Stormont Reminded me of Animal Farm”, Sunday Tribune, 12 April 1998).
The price to be paid for the inclusion of republicans in the talks was the exclusion of republicanism. This means dialogue with republican leaders and organisations but on the basis of an agenda that excludes the political objectives of republicanism. Central to the political objectives of republicanism were that there would be no internal settlement, that the Irish people have a right to self-determination and it’s not dependent on the agreement of a majority in the north. The whole peace process may have included republicans, but from the 1993 Downing Street Declaration to the final 1998 Belfast Agreement, was always based on the British state’s political alternative to republicanism since 1972: an internal solution (a power sharing assembly in the North which includes nationalists) with the externality of an Irish dimension (cross border bodies) grafted on it. The longstanding republican demands were never serious runners for all party talks, and none of them appeared in the final Belfast Agreement.
“What the British were allowing republicans – by permitting them into all-party talks where they can argue for a united Ireland without the remotest possibility of securing it – is an opportunity to dig a tunnel to the moon” (Anthony McIntyre, “Sinn Fein stance hinders Republican cause”, Sunday Tribune, 20 July 1997).
By negotiating with the Provisional movement, the British state was signalling to the IRA a way out of its armed campaign rather than a way out of Ireland for itself.
This is evident from the political parameters of the peace process. During the peace process, the British government made it clear, that (a) it would not act as a persuader for a united Ireland, (b) that it did not set any timescale for a united Ireland nor asserts its value, (c) that it did not contemplate joint authority over Northern Ireland shared by the British and Irish governments (d) that it had not reduced sovereignty over NI. All this was evident early on, in the 15 December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which laid the parameters for future negotiations. David Trimble:
“Crucially it was soon made clear (to Republicans) that there were conditions before there could be an official engagement. The key conditions were later formalised in the Downing Street declaration of 1993 as an end to violence and a commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Equally important was the government’s commitment to the consent principle and its refusal to act as a persuader for a united Ireland, which prefigured the outcome of the formal interparty talks, the three-stranded structure of which were defined in March 1991, and the key procedural decisions taken by the parties in 1992 in the absence of Sinn Féin. When it called the cessation of its campaign in 1994, republicans were, in effect, accepting these parameters for talks” (David Trimble, “Ulster’s Lesson for the Middle East: don’t indulge extremists”, The Guardian, 25 October 2007)
As Peter Taylor reminds us, “Although on the face of it the Joint Declaration was a nationalist green in colour, it was essentially a unionist document effectively enshrining the unionist veto that the Provisionals had spent years fighting to destroy” (Taylor, 1998, p343). In the course of its twelve points, the principle of consent was mentioned eight times. The Provos’ reaction was interesting: “The Provisionals had rejected the Sunningdale Agreement outright in 1973. They had condemned -sometimes stridently- the Ango-Irish Agreement twelve years later, but with some qualifications that left room for recognition that indeed it contained progressive elements. When confronted with the Downing Street Declaration, the Provisionals hesitated” (Jack Holland, 1999, p251).
SF sought ‘clarification’ of the Declaration, yet neither accepted nor rejected its contents, although the IRA ceasefire statement pointed that it was not a solution. “Ultimately, whatever the language of the declaration, the people of the island were not afforded the opportunity to exercise the right of self determination to bring about a united Ireland. Such an option was never laid before the electorate and even if it had been the exercise would have been futile given the continuing Northern veto” (Tonge, 2006,p124).
The next major step was the Joint Framework Document issued on 22 February 1995. It envisaged the establishment of a power sharing arrangement in Stormont along with the establishment of minimalist cross-border bodies remarkable for their “banality and low-key nature” and offered Unionists a “triple lock” veto on constitutional changes (Bew, p546). The Provisional leadership’s reaction to the Framework Document was positive.
Finally, in January 1996, Senator George Mitchell published his six principles which sought to establish the entry requirements to political negotiations and define the nature of all future political activity. The principles included renouncing the use of force and a commitment to exclusively peaceful means to resolve political issues, as well as the total disarmament of paramilitary organisations verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission. In May 1996, the Sinn Fein leadership announced that it would sign up to the Mitchell principles. This was in contradiction with the IRA’s constitution as it challenged the IRA’s right to bear arms. In accepting the principles, they accepted the British state’s definition of what constituted democracy and what it regarded as legitimate opposition. By the time Sinn Fein entered political negotiations in September 1997, the political parameters had been set and any future political arrangement would be a predominantly internal one.
From a republican standpoint, rejection of the Downing Street Declaration, Framework Document and Mitchell Principles should have been immediate. But the Provisional leadership did not reject them. This is why after the Provisional IRA reinstated its ceasefire on 19 July 1997, the republican political agenda was degraded to the point where Gerry Adams now wrote about “renegotiating the Union” rather than ending it (“Another chance for progress”, AP/RN 24 July 1997, p9 and Irish News, 17 July 1997). The weakness of the Provos prevented them from “republicanising” the peace process, in fact the process amounted to a means of “de-republicanising” Sinn Fein (Brendan O Muirthile, “Strategic Republicanism: neither strategic nor republican”, The Blanket). The process that the Provisional movement joined was pre-programmed to deliver a partitionist settlement.
As the peace process gradually developed, the IRA relaunched its England campaign. With the inherent weaknesses of the campaign in the North in the early 1990s the Army Council gave primacy to the campaign in England. It was prepared to invest the best resources of the organization in order to prosecute the bombing campaign in England, even if it was to the detriment of the campaign in Northern Ireland (McGladdery, p214). In the middle of the Gulf war, on 7 February 1991, the IRA carried out a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street. The mortars fell into the garden, almost succeeding in wiping out the Prime Minister and his War Cabinet. On 10 April 1992, two bombs at the Baltic Exchange in London killed three people and damaged 325 000 square meters of office space and required the British government to pay out £800 million in claims. On 14 April 1993, a bomb in Bishopsgate damaged 278 000 square meters of newly refurbished office space in London’s financial district, causing over £300 million worth of damage.
One myth is that those spectacular attacks in England had induced the British to talk to the IRA. Fear of devastation of London’s financial district led Major’s government to look for a settlement the IRA would accept. “What little evidence there is suggests the opposite was the case” (Feeney, 2002, pp395-396). “It was clear to many republicans that as the violence returned to England, the Northern Ireland peace process was already established” as opposed to the pressure of bombs in Britain establishing the peace process (McGladdery, p143). “The devastating bombs in London in 1992 and 1993 were aimed, not at moving the British towards talks -the republicans were convinced …that the Major government was amenable- but at increasing republican leverage once all-party talks about a settlement got underway” (Patterson, Ireland Since 1939, Oxford University Press, 2001, p320).
The purpose of the English campaign was not for the traditional three demands, but to give the leadership more leverage during the peace process negotiations and convey to the British the price of not settling (McGladdery, p159). Also, in his memoirs, the then British Prime Minister John Major suggested that “for them, an offer of peace needed to be accompanied by violence to show their volunteers that they were not surrendering” (John Major, The Autobiography, Harper Collins, 1999, p433). The bigger the surrender, the larger the bomb. . . But security forces successes meant that the organization was only able to mount one significant operation in England after July 1993; when between 8 and 13 March 1994 it launched three mortar attacks on Heathrow airport, an operation which intended more to put pressure on the British government than to do actual damage.
The SDLP and Fianna Fail were only prepared to work with the Provisional leadership if the IRA called a cessation of operations, and the British government made clear that it would be ready to include Sinn Fein in negotiations if Provisional IRA weapon were silent. So on 31 August 1994, it declared a cessation.
“Much has been written and said about the Provisional’s decision (to call a cessation). Analysing the political reasons that lay behind it, the discussions tend to leave out a vital factor that influenced PIRA in arriving at that position -the success of the RUC in thwarting its operations. . . It must not be forgotten. . . that before the 1994 cessation, it was becoming increasingly hard for PIRA to pull off the big jobs, the spectaculars, not only in London but also in Belfast – the city that they always regarded as the key to maintaining their campaign. . . By the year of the ceasefire there was only sporadic PIRA activity in Derry, and in East Tyrone and North Armagh, once among the most active and dangerous PIRA areas, it has been almost wiped out. Between 1986 and 1992 the East Tyrone and North Armagh brigades had had 22 members killed. . . South Armagh remained active, but even there PIRA’s chief tactic was restricted one-shot long-range sniper attacks. . . The organisation still retained the capacity to explode the occasional blockbuster in Britain – thanks mainly to the fact that of the two areas from where these attacks emanated, South Armagh and the Irish Republic, one was resistant to RUC penetration and the other was outside the force’s jurisdiction. The decision to call a halt to the campaign in August 1994, was undoubtedly taken partly in response to these operational problems” (Jack Holland and Susan Phoenix, Phoenix: Policing the Shadows, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996, pp265-269 and Holland, 1999, pp253-262).
The 1994 IRA ceasefire lasted until February 1996 and broke down because of a growing number of preconditions to inclusive negotiations which were unacceptable to the Provisional movement. First, the British government did not allow Sinn Fein to enter into political negotiations until the Provisionals declared their ceasefire to be permanent. Then in March 1995, Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland set out in a speech in Washington that in order to enter into political talks, the IRA would first have to ‘decommission’ (disarm) its weaponry. Due to all those preconditions to “inclusive negotiations”, the IRA felt that the peace strategy could not move forward and that it had no options but to end its ceasefire on 10 February 1996 by exploding a bomb in Canary Wharf, killing two civilians and causing £85 million of damage. On 15 June 1996, it detonated a 3000lb bomb in Manchester injuring over 200 people and causing damage valued at £411 million. This was the largest IRA bomb ever detonated in Great Britain and the largest bomb to explode in Great Britain since the Second World War.
When security forces were successful in preventing the England campaign, the IRA switched its operation to the North, when on 7 October 1996, two car bombs exploded at Thiepval Barracks, the British Army’s Northern Ireland Headquarters in Northern Ireland, killing a bomb disposal expert. On 12 February 1997, the last British soldier to be killed by the Provisionals was shot dead by a sniper in South Armagh. A month later, Adams wrote a condolence letter to his mother, an unprecedented act for a member of an movement ostensibly at war with the British state.
Despite the initial successful operations, the Provisional movement’s 1996-1997 campaign showed that it was difficult to go back to war (Jim Cusack, “Resumption of armed struggle has not been a success from the IRA’s point of view”, The Irish Times, 19 July 1997 and Moloney, 2007, pp442-443 and 458-460). The campaign was limited in nature. Moreover, the campaign “had a ‘phoney war’ feel to it. . . Volunteers were more reluctant to risk life and liberty when what was at stake was not the freedom of Ireland but an improved negotiating position in future talks” (Liam Clarke and Kathryne Johnston, Martin McGuiness: From Guns to Government, Edinburgh: Mainstream Publishing, 2001, p239). The Provisionals were so constrained that they had no real option but to call a cessation on 19 July 1997. It marked not the surrender but the “strategic failure” of the IRA (Smith, p215). In 2007, an internal document of the British Army stated that its campaign against the IRA was brought to a “successful conclusion”. The document, Operation Banner: an Analysis of Military Operations in Northern Ireland by General Sir Mike Jackson, was released by the Ministry of Defence following a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Jackson said the Army’s campaign in the North was “one of the very few ever brought to a successful conclusion by the armed forces of a developed nation against an irregular force.”
Section Eight of the document states:
“It should be recognised that the Army did not ‘win’ in any recognisable way; rather it achieved its desired end-state, which allowed a political process to be established without unacceptable levels of intimidation. Security force operations suppressed the level of violence to a level which the population could live with, and with which the RUC and, later, the PSNI could cope. The violence was reduced to an extent which made it clear to the PIRA that they would not win through violence. This is a major achievement and one with which the security forces from all three services, with the Army in the lead, should be entirely satisfied.”
Another observer writes: “It was true that the PIRA were not defeated militarily; but the British only need a draw to win” (Thomas Hennessey, The Northern Ireland Peace Process: Ending the Troubles? Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2000, p220).
After the IRA reinstated its cessation on 21 July 1997 and Sinn Fein entered into the talks, the political parameters were set and were clearly not going to deliver republican objectives. The Unionists even succeeded to severely dilute in the final Heads of Agreement documents most of the cross-border elements that had originally figured in the 1995 Framework Documents, making the Heads of Agreement far less of a threat to Unionism than the 1995 Documents (McDonald, 2008, pp154-155). At their first ever Downing Street meeting in 1997 British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked Gerry Adams if he could go back and tell his people “there was no possibility of a united Ireland”. And at its conclusion Blair told key aides “he was pleased that Adams seemed to accept he would have to live with something less than a united Ireland” as the outcome of the peace process.
In his 2008 book on the process, Great Hatred, Little Room, former Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell confirms Blair’s essentially pro-Union position from the outset of the negotiations leading to the Belfast Agreement. While still leader of the opposition at Westminster Blair had abandoned Labour’s traditional policy of Irish unity by consent. Over time he then moved from a position of ostensible neutrality on the constitutional issue to one of effective support for maintaining the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland based on the “consent” principle subsequently enshrined in the 1998 Belfast Agreement. When they met in the cabinet room on 11 December 1997 Adams said “he was grateful to Tony for taking the risk of holding the meeting and asked if the Labour party policy of unity by consent had disappeared altogether. What was the government’s strategic view?” According to Powell’s account: “Tony said he would not be a persuader for a united Ireland but he did want to create a situation in Northern Ireland that was fair.” (Frank Millar, “Former Blair aide reveals detail of negotiating process prior to Belfast Agreement”, The Irish Times 18 March 2008)
Not only had the Provisional movement accepted that the talks would not create a united Ireland, but they contributed little to the actual negotiations leading to the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which were essentially driven by the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists. “Sinn Fein contributed but little to the political details – ‘in the dunces corner’ as one Irish official put it. But with great tactical brilliance, Adams moved rapidly to embrace the Agreement and claim ownership of it against those who had actually made it” (Bew, 2007, p549).
The logic, dynamic and parameters of the peace process combined to mould a partitionist framework which served to predetermine a type of outcome republicanism had for long stood rock solid against. The culmination of the peace process, the Belfast Agreement concluded on 10 April 1998 amounts to the following: the British state has repeated its 1973 Sunningdale declaration of intent to remain in the North until a majority in it asks it to do otherwise; the British state has made it clear that the unionist veto shall remain in place and has strengthened the partitionist ethos underlying that veto by having it enshrined it in the revised Southern constitution; the British state has ruled out any transition to a united Ireland by refusing to state that by a certain date – no matter how far in the distant future – it will no longer have a presence in Ireland. The fact remains that the unionists will determine when the north will join a united Ireland. With no end to partition, no British declaration of intent to withdraw, no united Ireland, the outcome of the peace process had no identifiable Republican content. It was a ‘partitionist fudge’. (For a balanced assessment of the implications of the Agreement for republicanism see chapter 12 of Murray and Tonge, “Triumph or Sell-Out?” in Murray and Tonge, pp.213- 239 and for an in-depth critique see the supplement written by Liam O Ruairc in the forthcoming edition of The Starry Plough).
The Provisional movement claims that the Belfast Agreement does not represent a defeat for republicanism. Danny Morrison, former Sinn Fein publicity director, claims that the British couldn’t defeat the IRA nor could the IRA defeat the British, so the IRA did not win but had not lost either (Danny Morrison, “The war is over. . . Now we must look for the future”, The Guardian, 11 May 1998). That is demonstrably wrong.
“The political objective of the Provisional IRA was to secure a British declaration of intent to withdraw. It failed. The objective of the British state was to force the Provisional IRA to accept – and subsequently respond with a new strategic logic – that it would not leave Ireland until a majority in the North consented to such a move. It succeeded” (Anthony McIntyre, “We, the IRA, have failed”, The Guardian 22 May 1998).
The Provisional movement claims that the Belfast Agreement does not represent a defeat but an honourable compromise. Gerry Adams stated that it was “a historic compromise between nationalism and unionism” (“A moment in history”, AP/RN 25 November 1999). The problem is less that it is a compromise than the fact that it is a bad compromise (Gerry Ruddy, “The Good Friday Agreement – revisited” in Models of Governance: The Good Friday Agreement and Beyond, Coiste na n-Iarchimi, Belfast, 2003). Agnes Maillot is therefore wrong to write that for republicans “compromise is equated with betrayal” (Agnes Maillot, New Sinn Fein: Irish republicanism in the twenty-first century, London and New York: Routledge, 2005, p174). Jonathan Tonge is also wrong to frame the republican critique of the agreement in terms of absolutism.
First is that it was nationalism and republicanism that did the main compromising. Danny Morrison reminds us that among the “bitter pills the peace process has required republicans to swallow” are: “the deletion of Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution (the territorial claim over the North); the return of a Northern Assembly; Sinn Fein abandoning its traditional policy of abstentionism; reliance on British-government-appointed commissions on the equality and human rights issues and on the future of policing; and the implicit recognition of the principle of unionist consent on the constitutional question” (Danny Morrison, “Stretching Republicans too far”, The Guardian, 13 July 1999).
He also adds: “Republicans sit in an assembly they never wanted. The British government never gave a declaration of intent to withdraw. There is still a heavy British army presence in some nationalist areas. The police have not been reformed. The equality and justice issues have yet to be resolved” (Danny Morrison, “Get on with the business of peace”, The Guardian, 14 October 2002). “Yet Morrison declined to draw from this catalogue of disasters the conclusion that the peace process was an abject defeat for Republicans” (Murray and Tonge, p234).
To get a measure of how little has been ceded by unionists -and by implication how much by republicans- we need only view it through the following prism:
“If, for example, through the Good Friday Agreement, the unionists had signed up to a British declaration of intent to withdraw from the North and a Dublin declaration of intent to annex the six counties, no amount of wordplay and casuistry would have permitted this outcome to be regarded as anything other than a resounding defeat. Small consolation it would have been to them to have won outright on Strand One matters, such as keeping the RUC intact or the prisoners locked up. Unionism would have lost on the great philosophical question of consent” (Anthony McIntyre, “Modern Irish Republicanism and the Belfast Agreement: chickens coming home to roost, or turkeys celebrating christmas?” in Rick Wilford, ed, Aspects of the Belfast Agreement, Oxford University Press, 2001).
It looks more like a republican Versailles than an honourable compromise. Unionists won on the big philosophical issue. In return for Unionist concessions on power-sharing and an Irish dimension, nationalism and the Provisional explicitly signed up to acknowledging that there can be no end to the union without the consent of the majority in Northern Ireland, and that it is legitimate for that consent to be withheld if that is the majority view. Mitchel McLauglin admitted in his Parliamentary Brief article (May/June 1998) that the Agreement legitimised British rule and that senior Sinn Fein member Francie Molloy conceded that his party “are really prepared to administer British rule in Ireland for the foreseeable future. The very principle of partition is accepted” (quoted in Liam Clarke and Michael Jones, “Trimble shows more flexibility over IRA arms”, Sunday Times 28 March 1999).
The Provisional movement has gone much further than a ‘compromise’, an ‘accommodation’ or a ‘negotiated settlement’. In endorsing the ‘principle of consent’ contained in the Agreement, accepting that Northern Ireland will, as of right, remain part of the United Kingdom until such time as a majority within the six counties decides otherwise, Sinn Fein had ditched the idea that lay at the heart of its own tradition and that had provided the justification in political morality for the campaign, indeed the existence, of the IRA” (Eamonn McCann, “Historical Handshakes do not reflect street-level reality”, Sunday Business Post, 8 April 2007).
To endorse the Agreement, “we went to a special Ardfheis of our party, and then we went to another special Ardfheis of our party and we turned policy on its head,” recalled Gerry Adams in 2001 (Bew, 2007, pp549-550). Given the nature of the Agreement, how was the Provisional leadership able to sell it to the membership? “McGuiness conceded that the agreement ‘clearly does not go as far as most nationalists and republicans would wish. But it is the basis for advancement.’ For Republicans his phrasing was uncomfortably reminiscent of the words that Michael Collins used to recommend the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921. Collins described the treaty as ‘not the ultimate freedom that all nations desire and develop to, but the freedom to achieve it’” (Clarke and Johnston, p232).
Selling the Agreement as transitional was clearly insufficient.
“A first ard-fheis was held in mid-April but the mood of the grassroots was decidedly hostile to the accord and its unexpected centrepiece, a new Assembly at Stormont. One sample of delegate views showed that only 44% favoured the deal, well below the two-thirds needed. Wisely the Adams leadership stayed its hand that day. A second ard-fheis was held three weeks later but this time delegates arrived to discover that 27 well known IRA prisoners held in Irish and British jails, including the notorious Balcombe Street gang, had been specially released for the event. The effect of their presence was to remind delegates that if they failed to endorse the deal these prisoners would return to jail and spend many more years behind bars. Not surprisingly the Good Friday Agreement was approved by 94.5% of the ard fheis” (Moloney, pp480-483 and “Adams has prepared ground for historic ard fheis decision”, The Irish Times, January 2007).
Academics Murray and Tonge argue that “the support of large number of former and current prisoners for the Sinn Fein leadership had a huge effect in marginalising sceptics” (Murray and Tonge, p.261). The fact that on 10 May 1998 the Agreement was approved 331 for and only 19 against is also due to the fact that the critics of the peace process within Sinn Fein ,such as the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, were barred access to the ard fheis.
How can one explain that the bulk of “relatives of dead IRA volunteers, former hunger strikers, ex-escapees, former prisoners, as well as thousands of supporters” (Danny Morrison, “A time to build trust”, The Observer, 22 April 2001) remained supporters of the Provisional movement and its leadership? Loyalty to the movement is a decisive factor. “The republican leadership has always exploited our loyalty,” noted Brendan Hughes (“Interview with Brendan Hughes”, Fourthwrite, Spring 2000). With such a mindset, that the movement must remain united becomes an imperative. This is evidence of the primacy of organisational unity over unity around political principles. Once the movement is more important than principles, republicanism becomes whatever the leadership of the movement says it is. “Thus Republicanism that declared ‘No Return to Stormont’ in 1997 was still Republicanism when it meant Executive ministries at Stormont in 1999” (Murray and Tonge, p261). To have left the movement would mean being left out in the cold and facing ostracism. “Dissident is like disease,” according to one source, they are “hated more than the RUC, the British Army or the SAS” (Anthony McIntyre, “Of Myths and Men” in Aaron Edwards and Stephen Bloomer, Transforming the Peace Process in Northern Ireland: From terrorism to democratic politics, Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 2008, p123).
Signing up the Belfast Agreement in 1998 signalled that the Provisional IRA’s war against the British state was well and truly over (see for example Danny Morrison, “No longer need for Armalite”, The Andersonstown News October 27 2001). It took almost ten more years for the Provisional Republican Movement to conclude its transition into the state. By then the Belfast Agreement had been replaced by the St Andrews Agreement unveiled on 13 October 2006. Whereas once they Provisionals promised no return to Stormont, their new argument was “Why should we be afraid of Stormont? It’s our parliament too” (Coogan, p715). When devolution was restored on 8 May 2007 with Ian Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuiness as his deputy, this had been made possible by the fact that the IRA had gone out of business for good and Sinn Fein openly supports the policing system. Prime Minister Blair stated that “the IRA campaign is over” and boasted that “the IRA has done what we asked it to do”.
On Thursday 28 July 2005, the Provisional IRA issued a statement, declaring that its war was over: “The leadership of Óglaigh na hÉireann has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. This will take effect from 4pm this afternoon. All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms.” For the first time since 1922, an organisation claiming to be the IRA has publicly declared that there is no need for an armed campaign, as it believes that “there is an alternative way” to achieve its objectives: namely “the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement”.
This goes much further than a cessation and dumping arms, which the IRA had done a few times before – in 1922, 1945 and 1962 for instance. “All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever” (“Irish Republican Army orders an end to armed campaign”, AP/RN, 28 July 2005, p3).
In other words, “Now they promise to be nothing more than an old boys’ club for former volunteers. As of 4pm yesterday, promised republican Danny Morrison, the IRA will be about as threatening as the British Legion” (Jonathan Freedland, “A nightmare ends, another nightmare begins”, The Guardian, 29 July 2005).
Why was that statement issued? There is a fundamental contradiction between accepting the legitimacy of a state, of its laws and institutions, the constitutional system and the rules of parliamentarism and agreeing to operate within their framework; and armed insurrectionary politics dedicated to overthrow them. One cannot accept that the state has the monopoly of legitimate force and at the same time have links to an illegal army refusing to recognise the legitimacy of two Governments and ready to kill the servants of both. There is no chance that Fianna Fail or the Unionist would ever consider having Sinn Fein in government as long as they retain links to an illegal organisation carrying unlawful activities. That is why sooner or later the Provisionals would have to issue such a statement.
Consequently, the statement confirms the Provisional leadership’s intent “to complete the process to verifiably put its arms beyond use in a way which will further enhance public confidence and to conclude this as quickly as possible” and informs that they “have invited two independent witnesses, from the protestant and catholic churches, to testify to this” (“Irish Republican Army orders an end to armed campaign”, APRN, 28 July 2005, p3). It will thus complete the destruction of its arsenal. Ten years prior to that, in 1995, the IRA had stated that the demand for decommissioning was “ludicrous” (“IRA says British acting in bad faith”, AP/RN October 5 1995). In 1996, it stated again: “Whenever and however the ludicrous British demand for an IRA surrender is raised we can and will have only one answer. There will be no decommissioning either through the front or the back doors. This is an unrealistic and unrealisable demand which simply won’t be met” (“IRA says British good faith required for new peace process”, AP/RN March 7 1996). In 1996 Brian Keenan declared: “The IRA will not be defeated. Do not be confused about decommissioning. The only thing the Republican Movement will accept is the decommissioning of the British state in this country” (Coogan, p674). The slogan, “Not an ounce, not one bullet”, appeared in nationalist areas of the six counties. However, in May 2000, the Provisional leadership was forced to “initiate a process that will completely and verifiably put IRA weapons beyond use”: “the contents of a number of arms dumps will be inspected by third parties. . . to ensure weapons have remained secure” (“IRA statement”, AP/RN May 11 2000). In October 2001, it began the destruction of its stock of weaponry; and in September 2005 it completed the process.
The political significance of decommissioning is crucial. It showed that the IRA war was truly over – an army does not destroy its weapons if it is to fight a war. It was an act of surrender. There has never been a situation in the world where an ‘undefeated army’ has willingly and unilaterally handed over its weapons to its enemy. The only situation where that applies is when an army has been defeated and is forced to hand over arms as an act of surrender. Especially as there have been no loyalist acts of decommissioning to this day and presently there are more British soldiers in the north than in Iraq.
The “nay-sayers, the armchair generals, the begrudgers and the enemies of the peace process”, as Gerry Adams calls them, also pointed out that the acceptance of the principle of decommissioning has served to delegitimise and criminalise the previous republican resistance to British rule (“Looking for the future”, AP/RN October 25 2001).
It also elevates to a higher moral plateau British state weaponry: “Basically republicans are being told that the weapons used by Francis Hughes, the deceased hunger striker, to kill a member of the British SAS death squad are contaminated in a manner which the weapons used to slaughter the innocent of Bloody Sunday and the victims of shoot-to-kill are not” (Anthony McIntyre, “Another victory for unionism”, Sunday Tribune July 4 1999).
“Never before in the long and bloody history of Anglo-Irish conflict had an Irish insurgent group voluntarily given up its weapons for destruction, even self-destruction, at the behest of its opponents. When de Valera recognized the inevitability of defeat in the terrible Irish civil war and called a halt to the IRA’s campaign in May 1923, the organization was ordered to bury its arms, not to destroy them. Similarly when the 1956-1962 Border Campaign ended, Ruairi O Bradaigh’s last order to the IRA units as chief of staff was to ‘dump arms’” (Moloney, 2007, pp491-492).
One just has to look at what the IRA constitution has to say to realize the extent of the shift taken by the Provisionals:
“General Order No. 11 (Deals with the seizure of arms and dumps under Army control.)
a) Any volunteer who seizes or is party to the seizure of arms, ammunition or explosives which are being held under Army control shall be deemed guilty of treason. A duly-constituted court martial shall try all cases.
Penalty for breach of this order: Death. The deed was done and General Order No. 11 was breached coldly, deliberately and publicly. William Shakespeare once asked: ‘When is treason not treason?’ Answer: ‘When it is successful; because then none dare call it treason’. But those who went before us would dare” (Ruairi O Bradaigh, “When Treason is not treason”, Fourthwrite, Issue 8).
So why has the IRA not yet disbanded? Sinn Fein TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has suggested that this was because it represents a bulwark against the growing ‘dissident’ republican movement: “the (Provisional) IRA, in whatever way it exists today, represents a bulwark against dissident advance in many areas on this island, not least in the border counties in the North” (Paul O Brien, “Ó Caoláin: IRA a bulwark against dissident republicans”, Irish Examiner, 6 March 2008).
Logically, once the Provisionals agreed not to oppose the armed forces of the state, they would have to explicitly accept the state’s monopoly of armed force and agree to observe its laws. In practice, this means supporting the police forces north and south of the border that they had been fighting for more than three decades. There was a contradiction with the fact that while the party was prepared to administer British rule, it refused to accept British policing structures in the north. The party cannot have Ministers making the laws and at the same time refusing to endorse the forces in charge of implementing them. “This was an absurd and illogical political position. One either rejects the legitimacy of a state or accepts it. One cannot reject the legitimacy of one arm of the state and accept the legitimacy of another. Sinn Fein was trying to have its cake and eat it” (Paul Maguire, “Provo poachers turned gamekeepers”, New Republican Forum, January 2007).
The 1998 Belfast Agreement made it quite clear that signatories would have to accept new internal policing arrangements. The Provisional movement had to accept the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence. “If Sinn Fein is to complete its transition from a revolutionary group to a constitutional party which seeks to achieve positions in government on both sides of the border, support for policing has always been essential,” noted an Irish News editorial (29 December 2006).
On 28 January 2007, a Sinn Fein Ard Fheis made an ‘historic’ decision to support the PSNI and the criminal justice system; appoint party representatives to the Policing Board and District Policing Partnership Boards; and actively encourage everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the police services in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the criminal justice institutions. In November 2006, the party already signed up to the 26 counties new policing committees.
“Republicans inside the political and policing systems will use and stretch these institutions to the outer limits of their all-Ireland potential. This approach of critically engaging with all institutions will make the border irrelevant” (Jim Gibney, “Reunification is solution to partition problem”, Irish News, 1 February 2007). These comments by Gibney hint that the Provisionals are part of a long succession of politicians who went into the state with the intent to subvert it from within, however going into the state changed them more than they changed the state:
“In that 1986 ard fheis – the one that abandoned abstentionism – Ruairi O Bradaigh said the then leadership of the republican movement would lead it, the IRA and Sinn Fein into the same cul-de-sac (as he saw it) as the Cathal Goulding-Sean Garland leadership had led Sinn Fein the Workers Party. Who can now say he was wrong? And you don’t need to be in favour of the killing of a single human being to make this observation. The DUP has no reason to fear Sinn Fein – neither has Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or even the PDs. Indeed in a few years’ time they will be indistinguishable from any of them. Like the Stickies” (Vincent Browne, “Sinn Fein marches onward into cul-de-sac”, Sunday Business Post, 28 January 2007).
A Cork delegate observed at the January 2007 Ard Fheis: “History shows us that acceptance of the state which was meant to be a tactic has the habit of becoming permanent” (David Sharrock, “A momentous day for both the IRA and law and order”, The Times, 29 January 2007).
Since 2001, Sinn Fein has become the majority Nationalist party in the North and is today a party of government. “Nationalist politics at the beginning of the twenty-first century contained two great ironies. The party that had achieved most of its political objectives, the SDLP, was in electoral crisis. Meanwhile, the party that had achieved few of its political goals was now the more popular among the Nationalist electorate” (Murray and Tonge, p239).
Its electoral success in the North owes a lot to the fact that it appears as a younger and more aggressive version of the SDLP and has stolen all the ideas of constitutional nationalism. “SDLP members gasp in amazement as Sinn Fein uses language the SDLP patented twenty years earlier and calmly promotes SDLP policies as its own. When Sinn Fein accepted the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, which is a pale reflection of the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement that the IRA vowed to destroy, Seamus Mallon MP, the SDLP’s deputy leader memorably described the Good Friday Agreement as “Sunningdale for Slow Learners”. But since the majority of the nationalist population is under twenty-five years of age, Mallon’s reference to Sunningdale was as obscure to them as mention of the Dungannon convention of 1778 would have been” (Feeney, pp436-437). ‘New Sinn Féin’ is just a younger and more dynamic version of the SDLP:
“Despite all Sinn Féin’s republican rhetoric, it has no great strategy to achieve a united Ireland. In practical terms, it lives with partition just as easily as does its rival. Nor is there any substantial difference between the pair on social and economic issues. The SDLP, rather unfairly, has a more conservative image. But in government at Stormont, Sinn Féin proved to be no rip-roaring radicals. And when they eventually get back for a more prolonged period, they’ll be as capable as any other mainstream party of shutting schools and hospitals. In terms of international policies, it’s also much of a muchness. Sinn Féin shouted its anti-Iraq war slogans louder, but its leaders would have been first in the queue to shake George W’s hand had they been invited to the White House on St Paddy’s Day. . . Sinn Féin’s continuing success is based on its hard constituency graft, endless wealth and growing cult of personality. Never has any modern-day northern nationalist figure been so elevated and worshipped as the Sinn Féin president . . . Sinn Féin, just like New Labour, is a triumph of style over substance” (Suzanne Breen, “Moral high ground is not an advantage for the SDLP”, Sunday Tribune April 24 2005).
Similarly, the Provisionals have taken up most of the policies originally developed by the Workers Party, such as the demand for a Bill of Rights, illustrating the truth in the joke that the difference between the Provos and the Sticks is just twenty years (McDonald, pp116-120).
Posted on September 2, 2011, in Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, Republicanism post-1900. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.