The end of the IRA's 'long war'

About the author
Paul Arthur is professor in the school of history and international affairs at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland. Among his books are The People’s Democracy 1968-73 (Blackstaff Press, 1974) and Special Relationships: Britain, Ireland and the Northern Ireland Problem (Blackstaff Press, 2000).

Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator of the Irish republican political party Sinn Fein, said on his way to the United States on 27 July that the Northern Ireland peace process was entering a “defining period”. A day later, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) – the armed wing of the “republican movement”, with which McGuinness himself has been associated for more than thirty years – issued a statement that gave credence to his claim:

“The leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign … All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means…”

By the standards of modern Irish republicanism, and indeed of the history of the modern Irish conflict, the IRA statement is remarkable.

It has adapted and inverted the republican lexicon and it has managed to address two audiences simultaneously. First, IRA volunteers can read it as a message of defiance and of continuity: the struggle was legitimate and the struggle goes on – but by an alternative way of achieving a united Ireland. Second, the wider community in Northern Ireland will recognise the realism and transparency of the commitment to end the armed campaign immediately and to proceed with completing the verifiable process of “decommissioning” its military arsenal.

Also in openDemocracy:

Robin Wilson, “The end of the IRA” (March 2005)

The IRA has resisted the demand from its most determined adversary, Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), that there must be photographic evidence of decommissioning; nor does the statement indulge in apology. Republicans don’t do (much) remorse.

Perhaps the most startling reversal is that the IRA has handed its past, present and future over to Sinn Fein: “ … our consultations show very strong support among IRA Volunteers for the Sinn Fein peace strategy”. Historically it has been Sinn Fein that has been the handmaiden to the IRA; now it is Sinn Fein’s destiny “to utilise the considerable energy and goodwill which there is for the peace process”. There may be more than an element of wishful thinking in that last statement.

From militarism to politics

Not only conspiracy theorists are asking “why now?” The answer lies in the collision of long-term strategy and short-term contingency.

The terror attacks in London, and the wider climate induced by al-Qaida’s global campaign, make the IRA keen to distance itself from the “international network of terrorism”. In this respect, 9/11 was a boon for the peace faction inside republicanism, accelerating the quest for a political alternative. There was no role for continuing internal conflict in the western world in a climate of ethnic cleansing and talk of a “clash of civilisations”. Republicans sought sanctuary in the strategy pioneered by Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein’s president since as far back as 1983 – of moving from a culture of resistance to a culture of change.

Adams and his closest colleagues had been insisting from the 1980s that the most underdeveloped aspect of the republican struggle was its politics. He represents the success of the new wave that has moved from ideological rectitude to the electoral imperative. This has enabled Sinn Fein to become the second largest party in Northern Ireland and to make steady gains in the Republic of Ireland. It is the only party to have representation in the European parliament on both sides of the border; and it is the only party with the potential to be in government in Dublin and Belfast. The peace embodied in the Good Friday agreement of 1998 delivered a rich dividend. But it presented immense challenges as well, and was always vulnerable in face of unintended consequences.

Here, the events of late 2004 released a chain of events that can, at the larger political level, be seen as serendipitous. In December 2004, Sinn Fein and the DUP came within a whisker of signing up to a historic compromise and entering into a devolved Northern Ireland government together. The stumbling-block appeared to be the DUP’s concern over transparency in the decommissioning process; but its assertion that the IRA was involved in criminality was an even more potent factor.

The Progressive Democrats (PD), junior partner in the Republic of Ireland’s coalition government, made this charge on 9 December 2004. The PD insisted that the IRA’s refusal formally to repudiate criminal activity was a second major issue blocking a comprehensive agreement.

The allegation soon received spectacular and sinister vindication: in the robbery of £22 million from the Northern Bank on 21 December, and in the brutal murder of Robert McCartney in a Belfast pub a month later. The security authorities accused the IRA of the bank robbery, and McCartney’s sisters conducted a high-profile campaign blaming IRA volunteers and Sinn Fein activists for the murder, and subsequent cover-up and intimidation of witnesses. The Sinn Fein leadership procrastinated; the IRA offered to kill the assailants, if that was the wish of the family. The sense of a movement in crisis was palpable.

An uncertain peace

Both incidents had a profound impact on the dynamics of the peace process, in two ways. First, they challenged the logic of the Irish and British governments’ entire political approach to the republican movement. Before and after the 1998 agreement, they had engaged in “constructive ambiguity” in order to nudge the peace process forward. The price, according to Stephen Collins, “that is being paid for the appeasement of Sinn Fein has been the corruption of democratic standards in both parts of Ireland” (Sunday Tribune 9 January 2005).

It was noticeable that both Dublin and London started to pay much closer attention to republican criminality and insist that punishment beatings, extortion and worse had to be addressed. The point was reinforced when the George W Bush administration, and prominent Democrats like Senator Edward Kennedy, marked the annual St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the United States by welcoming the McCartney sisters and snubbing Gerry Adams.

Second, the events of late 2004 and early 2005 impacted directly on the Adams leadership. Republicans had brought the same discipline to peace as they had to war and, as we have seen, had been remarkably successful. The twin-track strategy of (much less) Armalite and (much more) ballot-box was in danger of coming off the rails.

Gerry Adams made a highly-publicised appeal to the IRA in April, asserting that the “struggle can now be taken forward by other means”. This was clearly an attempt to seek a dignified way out from the current phase of the conflict. Fintan O’Toole got it about right: “For the self-esteem of the so-called republican movement and for the political future of Sinn Fein, it is vital that its 30-year campaign of violence be remembered as a just war, a regrettable but necessary method of achieving a legitimate aim” (Irish Times 19 February 2005). The little matter of criminality was damaging the project.

This combination of long- and short-term considerations explains the tone of the IRA statement. Martin McGuinness would have flown to Washington only if he were certain that there would be enough in its language to assuage the Bush administration. He was correct, too, in emphasising the defining period. The “long war” has led to an uncertain peace. Gerry Adams’s demeanour on 28 July was suitably sober. He does gravitas well. These enduring comrades-in-arms have (rightly) been credited for moving republicanism into its present phase. The task before them is unenviable.