Ten Years On


A friend of mine, who served eleven years in jail - and who later was approached to join the Continuity IRA and the Real IRA - had to be heavily persuaded to support the ceasefire in 1994. He believed it would be exploited as weakness and his opinion was certainly vindicated by the response of the British government and unionists, which is why it broke down in February 1996 with the explosion at Canary Wharf. It was only with the election of a new government in 1997 and a fresh approach that the IRA resumed its ceasefire.

I met my friend at a rally a month after the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. He was still despondent. I put it to him the facts: the IRA hadn’t won, but it hadn’t lost either. The British military and its allies (both in the RUC and loyalist paramilitary surrogates) and the IRA had fought each other to a standstill.

My friend equated ceasefiring with defeat. But I pointed out that defeat is what the IRA suffered in its campaign of 1956-62. (Interestingly, back then, a unionist government granted prisoners early release without demanding a weapons’ handover.)

No alternative republican organisation was going to be able to wage again a guerrilla war with the tempo of that fought so tenaciously by the IRA for almost three decades. Thus the actions of dissident republicans were wrong, futile and pointless, with their spokespersons and apologists seemingly more driven by hatred of the republican leadership than by love of Ireland.

The IRA was retiring from armed struggle largely intact, from a position of relative strength and with a clear political alternative in place which had boosted the confidence and hopes of the nationalist community. The leadership was substituting armed struggle with demonstrably creative political activity which was returning palpable gains, both North and South.

Flexibility, compromise and realpolitik were paying off. My friend was somewhat reassured.

From the unionist perspective, of course, there should never have been an IRA campaign. Innocent people were killed in explosions; their family members in uniform were killed in gun and bomb attacks. Therefore, republicans deserved nothing in return for ending their campaign.

But there are two sides to every relationship.

The past ten years have been very frustrating for republicans, who have been genuinely attempting to reach agreement, have listened to unionist grievances and tried to understand their disposition, but with limited reciprocation.

That the North “might have been a cold house for Catholics” does little to sum up the humiliating nationalist experience over five decades of unionist misrule, sectarian discrimination in housing and work, and the latent state violence always ready to support that status quo. What I am saying is that the IRA campaign was fifty years, and more, in the making and had everything to do with the way Ulster Unionist governments mistreated the nationalist community.

Unionist representatives justified every excess by state forces, including summary execution, the ill-treatment of prisoners and repressive laws. They were never as vocal about or outraged by loyalist paramilitary violence as they were with the IRA’s campaign and this sent out a certain message to the nationalist community about double standards and hypocrisy (including the lie that the IRA killed “over 3000 people”).

Yet, apart from that one disingenuous phrase from David Trimble, unionists are in denial about their complicity in the conflict. I believe that this false self-righteousness informs the unionist mentality and is the real reason why the DUP even more so than the UUP cannot find it in itself to do a deal with Sinn Fein.

This self-righteousness has also given rise to the absurd demand for decommissioning. Unionists say they mistrust the IRA. Why would they then trust the IRA if it (and de Chastelain) were to declare that it had put all its weapons beyond use? It is an absurd, insatiable and unverifiable demand. Furthermore, four republicans meeting upstairs, a detonator found in Tyrone, can all become so easily a crisis that destabilises an executive.

On the eve of a review of the Agreement there is only one question whose answer should guide the DUP’s return to a power-sharing executive. Does it really believe the IRA is planning a return to war? If it is, then the IRA has a funny way of showing it.

It has operated a lengthy ceasefire (imperfect, granted). Sinn Fein dropped its traditional abstentionist policy in order to support and stabilise a northern assembly and executive. It supported the amendments of Articles 2 & 3 which unionists despised. IRA arms dumps were inspected several times and three times significant arms caches were put beyond use.

It is ironic that unionists who were so able to cope with the conflict find it so difficult to manage the peace.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison