The IRA Again

I asked about the impact of 7/7 and 7/21 on the IRA’s decision to “dump weapons.”

According to this article in the London Times, the decision had really been in progress before these dates – but the overall loss of legitimacy caused in large part by the UK and US mainstream’s reaction to 9/11 and Al-Quieda did play a part.

The low point for Sinn Fein came when it was excluded from the St Patrick’s Day reception in the White House and the McCartney sisters were invited instead. Sinn Fein depends heavily on its American links for finance but canceled fundraising events after it became clear that the White House was considering imposing visa restrictions.

Initially the IRA reacted with denial and bluster. In a statement in February it accused the British and Irish governments of “ultimatums, false and malicious accusations or bad faith”. A day later the IRA accused the governments of “making a mess of the peace process” and warned: “Do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation.” Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, hinted that the peace process might not survive indefinitely.

In the past such veiled threats have produced concessions. This time they met brick walls in Dublin, London and Washington. The three governments insisted that nothing was on offer unless the IRA ceased to exist as a terrorist organization and disposed of all of its weapons.

With all the political gains built up by Sinn Fein during the peace process under threat, Adams blinked first. A final impetus was provided by the Westminster and local government elections on May 5. Sinn Fein hoped to oust the SDLP as the largest nationalist party but its prospects were being threatened by the McCartney fallout and the pressure from governments.

Why did the governments take this position?

Because it was impossible to ignore the changed environment in the democracies (a la Pape) the IRA had hoped to influence.

The IRA and Sinn Fein once regarded themselves as the real army and government of Ireland. They responded only to military pressure and the IRA constitution described the Belfast and Dublin parliaments as “partitionist assemblies whose main tasks are treasonable”.

That has changed. The IRA has folded in response to public opinion and to political pressure. Republicans are now subject to the same democratic disciplines as other parties.

Richard English, the author of Armed Struggle — A History of the IRA, is among those who feel that the republican statement last Thursday was made with one eye on the backlash against the London suicide bomb attacks.

“It’s a terrible thing to say, but Al-Qaeda is really good for Northern Ireland,” he said. “It reminds people of how horrific terrorist violence is and puts moral pressure on anyone who wants to be a serious politician to distance themselves from bombing.” Republicans may now be in a win-win situation, however. “If it works, it looks as if they have initiated the final unlocking of the problem. If it doesn’t work, everyone will turn to Ian Paisley who will do a cabaret act of stomping in a way that nobody but his own supporters will understand,” said English.

“So it’s probably a good day for republicanism and it might be a good day for all of us.”

And that’s a good note to leave on…