One More IRA Statement


“The IRA should issue one more statement,” said the man next to me. I was at the annual Bobby Sands Lecture, which is held around May 5th, the anniversary of Bobby’s death in 1981 after sixty-five days on hunger strike. Before the main address, a film had been shown, outlining the background to the hunger strike.

It was quite emotional, watching footage of a heavy metal door being yawned open and the television camera surprising the ghostly figures of two long-haired, bearded, skinny young men, dressed only in blankets, living in excrement-filled cells. They, and hundreds, had been deprived of exercise, letters, books, pen and paper, of their own clothes for four years and had been regularly beaten.

The two squint and stare with ghostly jail eyes before they realise that here is an opportunity and one shouts, “We are political prisoners! We are political prisoners! Victory to the blanket men!” and then it goes blank.

All of us in that hall felt our dander rise as past and present coalesced, as parallel piled on parallel.

The film showed how the British government reneged on a deal with republicans during the IRA truce of 1972 by withdrawing political status for IRA prisoners from March 1976 onwards.

Imprisoned republicans were not to associate together as the IRA, not to organise, not to parade, not to stand for a minute’s silence to honour dead comrades, otherwise they would be punished and placed in solitary confinement on a bread and water diet. The British government demanded the prisoners wear a criminal uniform, do menial prison work, that they use certain language (address the warders as ‘Sir’, answer to a number and come to attention).

We were thinking: the British government do a hell of a lot of demanding of Irish republicans.

“The IRA should issue one more statement,” my tablemate had begun.

The film recalled the 1980 hunger strike, which ended without death after fifty-three days. The prisoners were told they could wear their own clothes but within twenty-four hours the British double-crossed them: to get your own clothes you have to wear prison clothes first, they said.

The film showed the British government and Margaret Thatcher ridiculing republicans and challenging them to test their support at the ballot box.

The film showed Bobby Sands doing just that by standing for election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, asking for a mandate, a position from which he could negotiate a peaceful end to the prison crisis. It showed him being elected by over 30,000 people and it showed the British government ignoring and deploring the results of the ballot box and changing the rules by amending the Representation of the People Act so that no other prisoner could stand for election after Bobby Sands died.

My tablemate, in his opening remark, unwittingly, presaged a similar call by Paul Murphy, the northern Secretary of State the following day. In relation to the cancellation of the Assembly elections, and having rejected Gerry Adams’ explication of the IRA statement, Murphy said that the IRA would need to provide a new statement if there was to be progress with an election in the autumn.

Perhaps the British government is just plain stupid and doesn’t know when to shut up. If, on the other hand, it knows what makes the Republican Movement tick, then its demands on the IRA are an attempt to humiliate the Republican Movement, sow division and thus weaken it – something the British strove to achieve, but failed, in the course of conflict.

It was also the strategy and response of John Major’s government to the initial offer of peace back in 1994.

It failed. Spectacularly.

“The IRA should issue one more statement,” said my tablemate, “after they bomb Canary Wharf, and tell the Brits to come back when they are interested in peace.”

It was more an expression of anger and frustration than a desire to return to armed struggle, yet among many this is the primary emotion stirred not simply by Tony Blair’s cancellation of the Assembly elections but by the accumulation of endless demands and tests on the IRA – and only the IRA.

The IRA’s commitment to the peace process, the compromises it has made, its engagements with the decommissioning body are unquestionable. It is fanciful to think that they are reversible, that the IRA could resume the armed struggle where it left off. Even if the calculation that the IRA cannot go back influences the arrogance of the British, republicans should not deviate from their immensely successful peace strategy which continues to expose and highlight the true nature of the problem.

I used to privately think that there might come a day when, without impeaching its past efforts and without prejudice to its ultimate objectives, the IRA could say the war is over.

But not now.

As a result of British and unionist demands that expression has taken on greater significance than any putative value it may have had as a reassurance to unionists. Besides, unionists say they don’t trust the IRA so why the pressure to prise such a statement out of the ‘untrustworthy’ IRA unless it is but to symbolise defeat and confer triumph on unionism?

Why would the IRA now agree to such a statement? To satisfy the blessed peacemaker, the besmirched Tony Blair? To help pro-Agreement unionists, whose difficulties I can understand, but most of whose weaknesses are not of our making? To satisfy David Trimble so that he can crow and parade the IRA feather in his cap in his electoral contest with the DUP?

Nationalists feel cheated by the British government and ashamed of Dublin, the junior poodle in the Anglo-Irish relationship. Nationalists were anticipated to vote overwhelmingly for pro-Agreement candidates, for peace and progress and confirm Sinn Fein as their voice. Unionists were anticipated to vote substantially for anti-Agreement candidates from the DUP and within the Ulster Unionist Party. It is not hard to work out where the problem lies and why the British cancelled the elections.

We need another IRA statement, say the Brits.

Who believes that next week or next autumn the IRA will don the criminal uniform implied by the words, “the war is over”, will call the British prime minister, “Sir”? And, more to the point, why should it?

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison