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Decommissioning was always going to happen

(by Ed Moloney, Sunday Tribune)

It is going to be one of those questions that will haunt debates about the peace process for years to come. It is this: would the IRA have agreed to decommission anyway or did it only happen because of the arrests in Colombia and the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington?

The consensus of opinion of many of those involved in dealing with Sinn Féin and the IRA since the peace process began many years ago is that no-one, no government official, intermediary, confidante or minister was ever entirely sure whether or under what circumstances IRA disarming would take place. Those looking for a simple answer to the question, at least from those up close with the process, are in for a disappointment.

What is beyond doubt though is that the Sinn Féin and IRA machine was very, very good at getting over different messages to different people at different times and that they did so always in a fashion calculated to advance the interests and political needs of the Sinn Féin leadership. Principally that was about maintaining the ambiguity - or was it the dissembling? - that fuelled the process, that kept both new establishment friend and old revolutionary comrade content and happy to see the next step taken.

Take for example the experience of a small group of selected journalists - not including this one - who were taken away to meet a celebrated IRA leader, sometimes thought of as the Chief of Staff, who is famous for his square-jawed, steely-eyed, hawk-like resolve. He gave them one of his withering "this is the voice of the IRA speaking, do you dare question me?" gazes and assured them that never, under any circumstances would the IRA decommission its weapons. Having drunk deeply from this well of certitude they went away and duly reported, for many years it must be said, that never, under any circumstances would the IRA decommission its weapons.

By contrast it is well worth re-reading One Spin on the Merry-go-Round, Sean Duignan's entertaining account of his period as press secretary to Taoiseach Albert Reynolds in the run up to and in the aftermath of the August 1994 IRA ceasefire. Duignan is one of the most solid reporters around and his recollection and recording of events during this period is beyond questioning.

On page 151, recalling events in October or November 1994, he wrote: "Around this time, Adams led another Sinn Féin delegation to meet Reynolds in his office. On this occasion, Dick Spring attended. Afterwards, he and the Taoiseach told me Martin McGuinness spoke frankly about the need to dispose of armaments. I took a note of what they quoted McGuinness as saying: 'We know the guns will have to be banjaxed' ".

How on earth, one might ask, can those starkly different statements be reconciled? It is possible that the IRA and Sinn Féin had different views at different times about the matter or that they did have a joint view which changed between the autumn of 1994 and that later get together between the IRA leader and the group of reporters. It is possible that either or even both explanations are correct - but unlikely.

If there is one overwhelming and defining feature of the Sinn Féin/IRA peace strategy it has been this in-built ambiguity, this presentation of the peace process in completely different colours to different audiences. This was most dramatically done at the macro level where the peace process itself was depicted to the IRA and Sinn Féin-voting base in the North as just a temporary, tactical substitute for armed struggle while in the boardrooms of Wall Street and government offices in a dozen capitals it was presented as a genuine, if difficult, effort to escape paramilitarism and enter the world of constitutional politics.

At the micro level it operated according to the circumstances of the issue but in principle it worked the same way and in this fashion provided the necessary dynamic to keep the machine lumbering forward, albeit very slowly at times.

It worked like this: having been assured by their leaders that Fianna Fáil, the British and the Americans were all being conned the Provo base would allow Gerry Adams and his colleagues to take the next step, even a controversial one. Having seen that the Provo leadership was willing to take that next step Fianna Fail, the British and the Americans would be content to turn a blind eye to the robberies, shootings, smuggling and occasional IRA killing, believing that these were necessary to keep the Provo base on board until such time as the IRA had gone so far down the road - others prefer the analogy of the bottleneck - that there could be no turning back,

It was a quite brilliant strategy and it operated on the basis that each party to the relationship with the Sinn Féin leadership, the Provos base on one hand and the governments on the other was supposed to believe the other was being hoodwinked.

But if the peace process took so many years to finally unfold it was not just because this was a necessarily clumsy beast to navigate but that it was persistently plagued by doubts as to who was really being deceived by whom. Did Martin McGuinness mislead Dick Spring and Albert Reynolds back in the autumn of 1994, for instance, or were those journalists the ones who were fooled?

With every issue except IRA decommissioning the weight of evidence was that the governments were correct in their assessment. The IRA did call a ceasefire; it was meant to be permanent even if it did break down; it was reconstituted; Sinn Féin and the IRA did, de facto, accept the principle of consent; the Provos entered Stormont and put their names to a deal which scrapped Articles 2 and 3; they have acquiesced in the new policing arangements, have become part of the NI government machine and will soon support the system that will lock up former colleagues turned dissidents.

But as long as the IRA held out on decommissioning there would be a stubborn doubt as to the bona fides of the Provisional leadership amongst Sinn Féin's new, powerful establishment friends. The same doubt, of course, sustained the IRA and Sinn Féin base. As long as the guns were not touched, it could be said, the leadership could not be accused of selling out.

With hindsight however, there were unmistakable signs that as with these other so-called core issues the Provisional leadership was ready to embrace a pragmatic approach to weapons - but only as long as the pressure on them was kept strong.

The strongest clue was the absence of a rigid, principled stand on the issue, a case of the dog that did not bark telling the true story and not for the first time in the peace process. If the Provos never intended to show flexibility on arms they surely would have indicated this at a very early stage in the process via some very public statement to the effect that while other issues were negotiable this one was definitely not.

Or they could have done it by refusing to co-operate with the Mitchell Body in its early days, way back in 1996 when the former US Senate leader was asked to investigate ways of resolving the guns problem. Instead Sinn Féin sent a delegation and a written submission along to Mitchell and encouraged its allies and surrogates to do so as well. It was out of that process that the international body headed by General John de Chastelain was born and the concept of voluntary but supervised self-decommissioning created. Far from saying it would have no truck with any of this Sinn Féin was instrumental in its genesis.

IRA statements were, on close examination, either laced with ambiguity or clearly influenced by the internal mood, the needs of the Sinn Féin leadership or indeed the hidden conflict with those who later left to form the Real IRA.

In September 1995 for instance the Army Council issued a hardline statement which appeared to rule out decommssioning in unequivocal terms. It ended: "Given (Anglo-Irish) history and the reality that (the British) and their loyalist death squad allies hold the largest stock of licensed and unlicensed weapons, the demand for an IRA handover of weapons is ludicrous". And again in December that year much the same sort of sentiment was repeated: "..there is no question of Oglaigh na hEireann meeting the ludicrous demand for a surrender of IRA weapons either through the front or back doors".

What has to be borne in mind about those two statements is that they were made at a time of great internal disquiet and tension about the direction the peace process was taking under the leadership of Gerry Adams and his colleagues. The September statement came on the eve of an internal Sinn Féin conference in Ballsbridge, Dublin at which much criticism was expected and when within the IRA meetings had degenerated into shouting matches. The December statement was published after internal pressure had forced the Army Council to call off the ceasefire, although it was not until February the next year that it took effect.

But notice that the rejection of decommissioning was really about refusing to "surrender" or "handover" weapons; there was not a word about voluntary decommissioning being unacceptable. In March 1996 another similarly ambigous policy position was published, this one referring to the impossibility of decommissioning "this side of a settlement". To the IRA rank and file "settlement" meant British withdrawal but to everyone else it signified something like the Good Friday Agreement, something much more modest.

The next apparently hardline statement from the IRA came in April 1998 as the Sinn Féin leadership was struggling with a doubtful base, trying to win their support for an agreement which they had told their supporters that they would never negotiate. This one said simply: "Let us make it clear that there will be no decommissioning by the IRA".

But once more there was ambiguity tacked on to the end of the statement: "(Decommissioning), as with any other matter affecting the IRA, its functions and objectives", the Army Council said, "is a matter only for the IRA, to be decided upon and pronounced upon by us". Translation: if we decommission it has to be us that do it, not the British nor the Unionists and not in any way that suggests surrender.

The ink had hardly dried on that statement when from his cell in the Maze prison IRA commander Padraig Wilson gave his famous interview to The Financial Times suggesting that indeed voluntary IRA decommissioning was the way out of the difficulty and that it could happen once the agreement took root. The original route map had been drawn, with Sinn Féin assistance, by the Mitchell Commission way back in the winter of 1996 but it had taken two years for the Provos to publicly acknowledge it.

The rest, as they say, is history albeit a tedious history of sham fights, half-hearted suspensions, inspections of opened but still mysterious dumps, modalities discussed, rejected and agreed, threats and promises made and withdrawn, North-South bodies sidelined, General de Chastelain accepted, rejected and then re-accepted and the resignations of First and other ministers tendered and then taken back. And in between seemingly endless conferences and crisis summits.

It grew into a slow but boring strip tease in which the name of the game became about the Provos extracting an extra dollar bill for every piece of flesh that was exposed. But in the end, once the dollar bills dried up, the veil had to fall. And that leads us back to that opening question. The only impact Colombia and September 11th had was to cause decommissioning to happen a lot faster than otherwise might have been the case. But it was always going to happen.

October 28, 2001
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