The Armed Peace - Life and Death and the Ceasefires


The Armed Peace – Life and Death after the Ceasefires
By Brian Rowan
Mainstream Publishing £15.99 h/b

Reviewed by Danny Morrison

Barney Rowan’s assessment of the current situation is a very positive one. Positive and hopeful – despite the perpetual crises within Ulster Unionism and the shattering of unionist morale generally; the refusal/resistance of the IRA to engage in Tony Blair’s infamous and one-sided ‘acts of completion’; the ongoing battle between British intelligence and the IRA; and the fact that the PSNI in the eyes of the – crucial - republican constituency still hasn’t managed to shed its RUC skin, though it is working at it.

And despite all these difficulties and obstacles Rowan in a refreshing, accessible and pacy work proves his case by comparing where we were in August 1994, when the IRA called its first “military cessation”, to where we are today.

On one side, the republican leadership, which once asserted “not a bullet, not an ounce”, then later actually put some “arms beyond use”, has by and large kept its movement united within the un-chartered waters of its peace project and consolidated and expanded its political mandate. On the other, unionists of all hues have been struggling with change (ignobly, in the case of the Holy Cross protestors, and, murderously, in the case of the drug barons of the UDA/LVF), but have at the end of the day been fighting a rearguard action.

“This book,” says Rowan, “is the story of the many battles since 1994: the battle over guns and governments; the power struggles; the fights and the feuds within loyalism; the emergence of the republican dissidents, who have refused to follow the Adams and McGuinness gospel; the struggles within a divided unionism; and the continuing intelligence war involving spooks and the spies in the IRA.”

For some, it will be Rowan’s insights into the faction fighting within loyalist paramilitaries that will be of interest. For others, his examination of the IRA is what will enthral: what is the IRA up to? It apparently defies logic, though one analogy he misses (and a comparison which republicans might not like made) is the action of Michael Collins in 1922. Having signed the truce and treaty and accepted the Free State, he continued to arm the IRA in the North, when nationalists were being attacked, and ordered the execution in London of Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson, MP for North Down, the security advisor to the first unionist government. In carrying out these actions Collins risked the British reneging on the treaty and the re-entry of the British army into the twenty-six counties.

Rowan examines the effect on the peace process of IRA gunrunning from Florida and the arrests of three republicans and their subsequent prosecutions in Colombia. How could the IRA have had the temerity – and taken such risks - to carry out the raid on Castlereagh? The latest incident, the one Ulster Unionists cite as the straw that broke the camel’s back when they brought down the power-sharing executive last October, was ‘Stormontgate’, when it is alleged that republicans used their access to Parliament Buildings and Castle Buildings to spy on British ministers and gather intelligence documents.
To unionists this is evidence that the IRA hasn’t changed at all and that a return to armed struggle remains a live option.

Rowan doesn’t think so. “There is not yet a ceasefire silence. Not yet a perfect peace,” he says at the outset, before explaining the psyche of the IRA and the unconventional and unique nature of Sinn Fein as a political party. In the end he concludes that overall there has been a significant shift in the IRA’s position, that it has moved away from rhetoric, that it still adheres to the objective of a united Ireland though engaging in a ‘strategic compromise’, but that each time the politics of ‘the process’ fail, the existence of the IRA (and, some will add, a motive for ongoing activity, as insurance) “is prolonged and the day of its potential end is pushed further away.”

Thus, unionists shouldn’t be obsessed with the continued existence of the IRA, should protect the power-sharing Assembly and agree to reforms because that is the best way of perpetuating the union by giving nationalists an equal stake in the institutions of the state.

Rowan’s assessment and portrayal of David Trimble, whom I have dismissed and begrudgingly admired all in the space of twenty-four hours, and on a dozen occasions, is deserving of republican reflection and reassessment. Our First Minister, it was obvious, was a man in need of a personality transplant. He could be infuriating. Pig ignorant. His greatest mistake, I believed, was not running with the Agreement, not immediately establishing the executive, in those dark days after the killing of the Quinn children and the Omagh bombing in the summer of 1998, instead of simplistically reducing everything once again to the single issue of IRA decommissioning.

I suspected back then that he was still out to screw and divide the Republican Movement. The beauty of the demand for decommissioning (which had been made synonymous with surrender, despite all moderate/liberal unionist, Dublin government and SDLP assurances to the contrary) was that if republicans acceded to it on unionist terms unionists would crow victory and republicans would be dispirited and angry with their own leaders. On the other hand, if the IRA refused to decommission then unionists could work to exclude Sinn Fein from the executive and redistribute the ministries to which Sinn Fein was entitled, in a modern gerrymander.

Rowan praises Trimble, says he has worked the Agreement if on his own terms and at his own pace, and that he is to be admired for remaining dogged in the face of considerable internal opposition (which could, this Saturday, result in a split within the Ulster Unionist Party). “History,” he says, “will be kind to him.”

There is much more meat in this book than a mere review can chew over. It is a valuable, intelligent, considered contribution to the discourse on the peace process and provides the various antagonists with an insight into the mentality of each other should they care or dare to look.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison