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ireland, irish, ulster, ireland, irish, ulster, Sinn Féin, Irish America

Ambiguity lives on

(Ed Moloney, Irish Examiner)

The almost uncritical welcome given by the governments in Dublin and London and sections of the media to the Provisional IRA leadership’s order to end its armed campaign yesterday has disguised the failure of the governments to achieve its main stated goal: the beginning of the withering away of the IRA.

While that will come as a bitter disappointment to many it will not surprise those who have closely observed the way the British and Irish prime ministers have dealt with the Provo leadership over the last six or seven years.

IRA disbandment or the beginning of something that would lead to it was put firmly on the agenda as a response to the extraordinary events at the turn of the year: the $51 million raid on the Northern Bank in Belfast, the money-laundering scheme that was then uncovered in the Republic, the murder of Robert McCartney and the subsequent attempt to cover-up IRA and Sinn Féin complicity.

These events, we were told again and again, were such an outrageous expression of contempt towards the two governments and to the peace process itself that things had to change and to change utterly. In the words of one Dublin pol corr with access to the highest in Government Buildings: ‘....nothing less than a fundamental break with the tolerance of fudge and ambiguity’ would now suffice for the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and his cabinet. Or so we were told.

There was an important lesson from the events that caused this crisis and this was that old demand for IRA decommissioning had been significantly devalued. The Northern Bank raid and the McCartney killing had showed that the IRA didn't need piles of guns and explosives to cause instability. The problem was not the IRA's weapons any longer, it was the IRA itself. And so it in its place came the call for the organisation to go away, or at least begin to so do.

The IRA statement contains nothing to suggest that can or will happen. In fact the absence of any commitment to end IRA recruitment suggests that the leadership envisages that the IRA will be around for some time to come.

The importance of the absence of any sign that disbandment will happen lies in the fact that this at least would give people some measurable evidence of the IRA's real intentions. If the IRA was truly winding up, people in the areas where it exists would soon know and so would the rest of the world. Instead we have more words, fine words to be sure, but we have had fine words before and they never buttered a single parsnip.

The fear and suspicion of those labelled sceptics is that ambiguity about the IRA's intentions lives on despite this statement and it was ambiguity in the past - #150; the difference between the face value of words and their true meaning - #150; which created the potential for instability upon which Sinn Féin fed and thrived. The suspicion, borne out by events, was that real strategy, the real meaning of the Tactical Use of Armed Struggle, is not the achievement of peace and political stability but the political aggrandisement of Sinn Féin and its leadership.

Evidence that ambiguity lives on and that this is probably deliberate comes in the apparent fact that there has been no IRA Convention, no attempt by the leadership to refashion republicanism for a new order. No Convention means no changes to the IRA constitution. The IRA’s legally binding commitment to “wage revolutionary armed struggle” when possible thus survives and sits uneasily besides P O’Neill’s new, non-binding public pledge to use only political methods in the future.

The fact that there has been no Convention also means that legally speaking the IRA has not ended its war, no matter what yesterday's statement said. Only a Convention can end the war with Britain and that has not happened. Ending the armed campaign - #150; notice the statement did not say "armed struggle" - #150; means this move is similar to the ending of the 1956-62 campaign. An important event for sure, even historic but the option of returning to armed struggle survives, as it did in 1962.

To even the most soft-headed observer all this has to be seen for what it is, more of the “fudge and ambiguity” that a few months ago the Taoiseach told the Dublin pol corrs must end. But where there is no fudge or ambiguity at all is in the continued existence of the IRA whose members carry on much as before albeit now, theoretically, bound to use only political and peaceful methods and, allegedly, deprived of access to guns and bombs.

To be sure Messrs Adams and McGuinness were doubtless able to marshall persuasive arguments to convince the governments that disbandment was beyond their reach. There might be defections or a split, while closing the IRA down would leave rival groups like the Continuity and Real IRA’s and the INLA ruling the republican roost and make the Sinn Féin leadership vulnerable to political and physical attacks. That is something the governments could empathise with. After all without the IRA around who would police the peace process in the republican heartlands?

But in place of disbandment we now have a development that is bad news for the peace process no matter how it pans out. According to Justice Minister Michael McDowell, the three Sinn Féin members of the Army Council, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris have all quit, leaving the IRA leadership solely in the hands of 'soldiers'.

Sceptics will be entitled to suspect that this is the beginning of a fraudulent divorce of Sinn Féin from the IRA in which Sinn Féin continues to benefit from the leverage that IRA activity or potential IRA activity brings while being able to deny any responsibility for it. The IRA meanwhile, led by an Army Council that more closely resembles a Mafia Commission these days, will carry on robbing, forging and smuggling - #150; and anyone who thinks they won't is living in cloud-cuckoo land - #150; while thanks to yesterday's statement those involved will be able to deny culpability.

It may be that the optimists might be right and this is start of a brave new departure for Sinn Féin. In which case, one is entitled to ask, doesn't this make nonsense of the foundations upon which the peace process was constructed? Wasn't the peace process predicated on the principle that as respected IRA leaders, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness would be able to deliver the hard men into peaceful politics. How does jumping ship advance that goal?

There was a way to address the disbandment of the IRA which would have been persuasive and effective but, crucially, none of the Provo leadership suggested it nor, as far as is known, did the two governments ask for it.

With the minimum of risk and cost to itself while at the same time signalling its intentions to Unionists and the world in a compelling way, the IRA could have stood down its units in Britain, in North America, in Australia and New Zealand and elsewhere. Thus a disbandment process would have started which could be accelerated if conditions improved or easily reversed if they worsened. At the same time neither the hegemony of the Provos' within republicanism nor the confidence of their rank and file in their leaders would be threatened.

The fact that not even this most minimal move has been made can only strengthen the conviction that the Adams/McGuinness leadership wishes to keep the IRA intact, albeit now at a distance from themselves, both as a way of injecting instability into Irish politics when it suits and to trade it for greater prizes in the future. The Taoiseach may be correct, that this is the start of the IRA morphing into a commemorative body. But who would bet the mortgage on it? The Unionists certainly won't.

It needn’t have been this way. The Adams leadership has manoeuvred the IRA into and down the road of the peace process largely by allowing, even encouraging the IRA to score own goals. Thus the ceasefire was preceded by reckless, demoralising IRA operations that killed civilians and decommissioning was made inevitable by the IRA’s adventures in the Colombian jungles.

The Northern Bank raid, authorised as it was by the Army Council, opened the way for really radical changes such as a start to IRA disbandment but rather than seize upon this opportunity and press home their advantage Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair blinked.

Their initial outrage and anger was quickly replaced by caution and timidity. While American politicians like Hillary Clinton and John McCain called, as did a Senate resolution in mid-July, for the IRA to disband, both Ahern and Blair steadfastly refused to use the word. Long-time Adams’ ally Peter King, of all people, even threatened to criticise the IRA publicly if it didn’t disband but still neither prime minister would allow the word to sully their lips.

Ahern then held secret meetings with Adams (what on earth about?) and hinted to the BBC that, despite evidence that it might be contrived and false, he might accept a Sinn Féin-IRA divorce, a proposal which Adams and McGuinness have now gratefully accepted. Then in early July the Taoiseach used words that must have been sweet music in Gerry Adams’ ears. Disbandment, he announced, might cause a split in the IRA and that must be avoided. With that the issue was off the agenda.

Tony Blair meanwhile met Adams in Downing Street for their first get-together in London since the Northern Bank raid but, remarkably, failed to ask him when and how the IRA would respond to his April call to embrace peaceful politics. When asked why not, Blair’s spokesman replied: “This was a meeting with the President of Sinn Féin”, thereby implicitly accepting one of the great lies of the peace process, that Adams has no links to the IRA and cannot speak for it. So what did they talk about instead?

So, with no government pressure on him to disband the IRA, in fact quite the opposite, and the two prime ministers falling over themselves to coddle him, Gerry Adams had won long before the whistle blew. His priority was always going to be to say and concede just enough to win the praise and support of Blair and Ahern but not enough to please the Unionists, and as has happened so often in the past he will probably succeed.

The real puzzle here is why Ahern and Blair behave towards the Provos in the way they do. The Taoiseach may have an eye on a future alliance with Sinn Féin and wishes not to alienate future partners while the British prime minister has his on his place in the history books. But neither is sufficient to explain this.

The real problem is that they mistake Gerry Adams’ caution for weakness. When he manoeuvres and manipulates the IRA into concessions they see that as an admission of his own vulnerability and that if a wrong, hasty move is made then he could end up in a ditch and the rest of us could be pitched back into conflict.

That was certainly true when the peace process began in the 1980’s and when the IRA ceasefire was called in 1994. There may even have been validity to that view five years ago. But not now. Too many things have changed for that to be credible any longer. The truth is that Gerry Adams and his allies now have, and have had for some time, complete control over the IRA and can take it in whichever direction they wish. And not only does the IRA not want to go back to war, it cannot. If Adams continues to manipulate the IRA it is not because he has to but because it convinces the governments he is weaker than he actually is.

For reasons known only to themselves neither Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair nor any of their advisers can or wish to see that. Until they do, this peace process will drag on forever.

July 29, 2005

Ed Moloney is author of A Secret History of the IRA.

This article appears in the July 29, 2005 edition of the Irish Examiner.