IRA statements reveal the politics of weakness
14th February 2005
When the Stormont Executive and Assembly were suspended in October 2002 the failure was blamed on the ‘exposure’ of an IRA spy ring at Stormont. In fact the suspension was already on its way since the Ulster Unionist Party under David Trimble had declared its intention to collapse the institutions. The British however did not want to allow a situation where demands from unionism were seen to collapse the process. It was necessary to retain unionist support and necessary to continue to weaken republican demands, no matter how diluted they had become. So the British blamed the IRA for the suspension, allowing the offensive against them to continue.
Two and a half years later the same exercise is in operation. The latest attempt to resurrect what is left of the Good Friday Agreement failed when Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party demanded that republicans should publicly wear ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ that their decommissioning of weapons be photographed and the photographs be available for the DUP to parade as a means of IRA humiliation. The two governments, parties and media agonized over how close they had been to an historic breakthrough and indicated that just a little more hard work was necessary to achieve the success which was almost within their grasp.
Then came the Northern Bank robbery and all of a sudden the wilderness beckons. The process was now in deep crisis, we were in unchartered territory and somewhere ‘we have never seen before’. (Irish Times correspondent 12-02-05) Supporters of the process variously registered depression, pessimism and despair. The impasse of the process was now due to IRA responsibility for the robbery and not DUP demands for humiliation. The answer was therefore for the IRA to decommission, effectively disband and make unconditional promises of intent to avoid ‘criminality’ in the future, to be verified by an unspecified period on probation. The demands of the DUP were endorsed by the two governments and more; more because each collapse requires greater concessions by republicans than those which brought it about.
For the supporters of the republican movement the attacks of the British and unionists provide comfort that they remain in opposition to both and that accusations of betrayal are outrageously misplaced. Praise from the same quarters when they agree to another retreat is registered at quite another level and the illusion that their leaders are the most astute of political strategists is viewed as receiving independent confirmation. Now the demands of the British, Unionists and Irish Government bring this process to the point where retreat looks too much like surrender. This is the significance of the photographs.
When an army retires from engagement, with its enemy in possession of the battlefield, it is known as defeat; this is what happened when the IRA called its ceasefire. When it unilaterally gives up its weapons upon the demands of its enemies it is known as surrender. Republicans have pretended otherwise. Reality is stronger than illusion and the peace process has been the means of forcing recognition of that reality.
They have deceived themselves with the slogan ‘IRA – Undefeated Army.’ If not the actuality of war then at least a threat of its resumption has played a big part in maintaining illusions. Decommissioning was accepted because no republican was going to believe that all the weapons were going to be abandoned. The demand for a photograph, however, and now demands for an end to all activity, leave no room for doubt.
The IRA statements register all this and reveal the emptiness of the republican view that they were both undefeated and, as such, could go back to war. The first IRA statement was a barely disguised threat to do so. The announcement that ‘we are taking our proposals off the table,’ that is the promise to decommission all their arms and enter a ‘new mode’ of activity, was given short shrift by a Southern Government source which noted that no one had signed up for their proposals anyway and that they were only ‘taking off the table what wasn’t good enough to secure a deal in the first place.’
Their decision to disengage with the decommissioning body of John de Chastelain cut no ice since they had done this three times before. Their statement was sneered at and ridiculed with many of the metaphors comparing the republicans to children who had thrown their rattle out of the pram when they didn’t get their own way. When the second statement was issued they were then accused of throwing the blanket out after it.
The carefully constructed statesmanlike gravitas practiced by Gerry Adams went out the window when he said that the two governments needed ‘to get their heads out of their asses.’ Republican leaders lost the rag in television interviews and they proclaimed that they would no longer interpret IRA statements which left them in the absurd position of being the only people unable to do so. The road that began with Sinn Fein being unable to explain and justify IRA strategy and its most glaring errors ended with them being unable to explain even what the IRA itself wanted to explain.
The first IRA statement is revelatory of the political crisis that now faces republican strategy. The statement has three basic parts. The first explains all the steps that the IRA has taken to develop the peace process and the concessions involved. In fact these nearly al boil down to one – decommissioning their arms. Nothing is said of the much more important political capitulation involved in recognition and legitimisation of imperialism and partition through support for the Good Friday Agreement; or their support for the deletion of articles two and three of the Southern constitution and insertion in their place of the unionist veto over national self-determination. Nothing is said of their rabid support for Stormont or of the deeply sectarian arrangements of the GFA institutions.
Having listed their concessions they then bitterly complain how little they got back in return. ‘Commitments have been broken or withdrawn…The progress and change promised on political, social economic and cultural matters, as well as on demilitarization, prisoners, equality and policing and justice, has not materialized to the extent required, or promised.’ They further complain of continued activity by British armed forces and the fostering of ‘dangerous instability’ among loyalist paramilitaries. They then bizarrely claim that ‘at this time it appears that the two governments are intent on changing the basis of the peace process’!
Their response is to take ‘all our proposals off the table’ and to issue a not very subtle threat which the governments and unionists immediately discounted. Beyond this they offer no concrete policy of opposition. Why not? Because they recommit themselves to the process and congratulate themselves upon the ‘progress achieved so far’!
Their statement is thus a lament at the failure of the peace process to deliver, a claim that it has changed for the worse and a commitment to continue to support it! And republicans wonder that no one took it seriously!
The second statement revealed only the prostrate position of the republican position as they demanded that their first be taken seriously. In the past there would have been no second statement, or rather the second statement would have been the sound of an explosion. Now however commentators discount the ability of republicans to re-engage in armed struggle, not because they couldn’t start it but because they couldn’t sustain it. This usually refers to purely military considerations, but these are simply a reflection of the fact that an armed campaign to enter a coalition government with the DUP at Stormont makes no sense.
This too reflects the weakness of the republican position. Their electoral growth and the background threat of the IRA is seen by republicans as the two elements of their strength. The collapse of the latest talks reveals the frailty of both. Their electoral growth has become dependent on continued involvement in a process that strips them of the last vestiges of their traditional programme and involves a process of surrender. They face a future as Ogra Fianna Fail in possible coalition with the senior organization and with the discredit and disrepute that will inevitably accompany such a venture.
The IRA, if it was responsible for the Northern Bank robbery, has revealed its role not as defender even of its political wing but as the agent of its isolation, in fact preparing the grounds for which it can be attacked. If it was not responsible its very existence as an organization that can no longer physically confront the armed occupation forces but only engage in ‘other’ activity is a standing invitation for just the sort of political offensive we have seen launched by the British and Southern Governments.
The statements are evidence of grave disquiet and concern inside the ranks of republicans. They provide no evidence that they have the first inkling of how to get themselves out of their current predicament. They do not even have the comfort of knowing that anything they now do will rescue the twisted remains of the Good Friday Agreement, since the latest collapse was entirely due to the efforts of the DUP, which is under no pressure to change its demands for supremacy.