Arms Before Use


Last Tuesday's announcement from the IRA that it had verifiably put 'arms beyond use' is unprecedented in the 200-year history of Irish republicanism and the physical-force tradition. At the conclusion of all campaigns - which usually ended in defeat or demoralisation or splits - wounds were licked, the remains of the organisation picked up the pieces, and the pike, literally and figuratively, was hidden in the thatch in the certainty that 'there will be another day'.

Many republicans find the IRA's decision extremely difficult to accept in the light of British hypocrisy and double-standards on the morality of the use of violence. Even now, British and US forces are killing children, women and men in Afghanistan. Republicans also view unionist attempts over the last few years to use the arms issue to frustrate political progress as cynical. Unionist politicians courted loyalist paramilitaries and engaged in extra-parliamentary action when it suited them. More recently, they have balked at intervening in North Belfast, and elsewhere, to curb the wave of loyalist paramilitary attacks against nationalists.

Nationalists remain vulnerable and concerned about their safety, given the absence of an impartial and representative policing service which unionists still resist coming into being. It can be assumed that the IRA, which in a very real sense, 'arose out of the ashes of Bombay Street', has taken these concerns on board.

Though there is palpable disquiet and unease, most republicans have their eye on the bigger picture and understand that the peace and political processes, once underpinned, will lead to a material transformation in the lives of the people, to stability, progress and prosperity, and, through real engagements with former foes, a degree of reconciliation. The majority of the Republican Movement - made up of IRA activists, former prisoners, Sinn Fein activists and support and solidarity organisations - accepted the need for a pragmatic approach to the struggle once a military stalemate had been conceded by both the British military and the IRA - despite the subsequent provocative resistance to change from some British securocrats.

Sinn Fein's overtaking of the SDLP (historically, the darlings of the British and Irish establishments) is indicative of a buoyant nationalist mood which has placed its faith in the direction given by a radical republican leadership. In elections in the South Sinn Fein is likely to receive further endorsement of a major national role in Irish politics.

Dissident republican organisations have failed to attract any popularity, to articulate a rational or viable strategy, or to wage an effective armed struggle which has any potential to positively influence events. Indeed, there are reports that they are actually engaged in a re-think of their position and, if so, this should be welcomed and embraced, their prisoners released.

The IRA leadership have made a courageous decision. Right is on their side. The onus is now on the British government and the Ulster Unionist Party. The British must live up to the commitments they made under the Belfast Agreement, including those on demilitarisation, policing, equality and justice issues.

The IRA's action also represents a momentous opportunity for Ulster Unionists to leave the past behind and enter into partnership with a community which they once victimised and which in turn rose up against them. This is an opportunity for them to face down Paisleyism and sectarianism and no doubt the DUP will be putting their hands up for their two ministries once they realise the game's up.

There will be those among unionists and in the media who will crow or gloat to provoke republican confusion or disunity. Ignore the ignoramuses because it is progress that they really fear and republicanism is on the rise. The challenge now is on the Ulster Unionists to lead their people into a historic partnership with representatives of the Irish electorate, North and South, in the Assembly, the Executive and the all-Ireland bodies.

Twenty years ago at the end of this month, during a crucial Sinn Fein ard fheis debate on whether the party should enter into electoral politics after the hunger strike, I made a speech about a twin strategy of going forward with an armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other. The debate was won and Sinn Fein began its tentative steps into mainstream politics.

During the conflict the British boasted that they had the IRA on the run, that they were 'squeezing the IRA like a tube of toothpaste' and that 'the hunger strike was the IRA's last card.' They got it spectacularly wrong because the IRA was a force representative of an alienated community with amassed grievances. The British wasted many years, changing the rules of electoral engagement, refusing to recognise mandates and to talk, demonising republicans and perpetuating the war.

The IRA cessation of August 1994 was the real initiative which broke the stalemate and which ultimately laid to this week's IRA announcement which, paraphrased, declares that the war is over and there is no longer any need for the armalite.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison