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The end of the IRA

Robin Wilson
16 March 2005

The Irish novelist John Banville once reviewed a book of short stories by Gerry Adams for the Irish Times. They contained, he wrote, the sentimentality of every totalitarian.

Gerry Adams and his comrade-in-arms Martin McGuinness run the “Republican movement”– the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its electoral arm Sinn Féin – as a Leninist, politico-military machine. They emerged in the early 1970s in Belfast and Derry respectively, in the wake of the collapse of the one-party Unionist ancien regime (itself a polity foreign to democratic norms) and a republican split between “Officials” and “Provisionals”. Adams and McGuinness, leaders of the majority “Provisional” wing, have dominated the movement for decades.

As the not unsympathetic observer Kevin Toolis put it (Times, 5 March 2003):

“Sinn Fein is a democratic party in the same way as the ‘democratic centralist’ communist parties of the Soviet bloc were democratic. Adams and McGuinness are part of the same tiny hermetic leadership elite that has ruled the IRA since the early 1970s. They fire and call the shots.”

Individually, they have been linked to some of the most ruthless killings of the Northern Ireland “troubles”. In his authoritative A Secret History of the IRA, Ed Moloney claims that Adams set up two secret cells to carry out special operations on behalf of the IRA’s Belfast brigade. One of these units was responsible for the “disappearing” in 1972 of Jean McConville, a mother of ten from the city’s Divis Flats. McConville, whom the IRA decided was an informer, was taken to a beach on the southern, Republic of Ireland side of the border, shot in the back of the head and buried in a shallow grave. Her remains were discovered recently by accident. Moloney reports that it would be inconceivable that the order for this killing would not have been given without Adams’s knowledge – if he did not issue it himself.

According to Moloney, McGuinness was “northern commander” of the IRA in 1990 when command staff won the approval of its executive body, the “army council” (which he chaired and on which Adams sat), for the use of the “human bomb” tactic. While his family was held hostage, Patsy Gillespie of Derry was forced to drive a car loaded with 500 kilogrammes of explosives to a border checkpoint, where the bomb was detonated by remote control. Gillespie and five soldiers were blown to pieces.

For Adams and McGuinness, politics was an extension of militarism. Just as the ideologues in the Soviet east realised that appropriating the language of “peace” could win them well-meaning, if naïve, allies in the west during the cold war, the two republican leaders developed a “peace strategy” which they have purveyed to a wider public since the early 1990s. Many believed, as many had hoped of Leninist apparatchiks, that engagement would lead them to adopting democratic norms. “Useful idiots”, as Lenin is supposed to have said.

Enter the McCartney sisters

The strategy served Adams and McGuinness well, bringing them electoral rewards, political office in Northern Ireland’s devolved government (now suspended), and the appearance of respectability (a welcome by leaders in Washington and London). Now, at last, it is all threatening to blow apart – and, in a delicious irony, from inside their own “community”.

A huge, £26.5 million raid on the Northern Bank on 21 December 2004, almost certainly the work of the IRA, had already put the movement’s refusal to renounce violence and criminality under the spotlight. With it, the hope that a Gramscian transformismo would neuter Provisionalism finally ran into the sand.

But the dam truly broke in the aftermath of a chilling incident the following month, when IRA members in a Belfast bar brutally murdered Robert McCartney). His neck slit and his stomach opened, McCartney was left (with a friend who luckily survived) to bleed to death in the street, while IRA members inside intimidated some seventy witnesses and forensically cleaned the premises.

For thirty years the leadership of the IRA has managed to withstand everything – from internment without trial to Bloody Sunday to the blandishments of Tony Blair – the British state has thrown at it. Now, a vigorous campaign for justice by a group of five women from a tiny Catholic ghetto in east Belfast, Robert McCartney’s sisters, has the seven men of the IRA army council running around like headless chickens. In a second wonderful irony, their leading member Paula McCartney is a women’s studies student.

In a metaphorical sense, it is like the falling of the Berlin wall, when all the old political strategies became redundant overnight and the exponents of “newspeak” start to look shabby and discredited. Yet Blair (something of an expert in newspeak himself) continues to engage with Adams and McGuinness, via his private emissary Jonathan Powell, as if nothing had happened.

The government in Dublin, especially the justice minister Michael McDowell, has adopted a much stiffer, don’t-call-us-we’ll-call-you, stance. The republican leaders, previously feted as peacemakers and statesmen, are finding doors slamming in their faces in Washington, even amidst the St Patrick’s Day schmaltz and shamrockry. The hitherto Sinn Féin-friendly Guardian has scuttled sharply away from its fellow-travelling op-ed pages; the Boston Globe has compared the IRA to the Mafia; and the republicans’ strongest Congressional supporters, Peter King and Edward Kennedy, have advocated the IRA’s disbandment. In a third spectacular irony, it is the McCartney sisters (Paula, Catherine, Gemma, Claire and Donna), as well as Robert McCartney’s fiancée Bridgeen Hagans who are being welcomed to the White House while Adams is frozen out.

The British prime minister has meanwhile infuriated Sinn Féin’s main competitor for the Catholic vote in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour Party’s Mark Durkan, by observing on more than one occasion that his party’s trouble is that it doesn’t have any guns. By falling into the trap of cultivating what the ethnic-conflict expert Donald Horowitz calls an “auction mentality”, Blair’s amoral offers of sequential concessions to the highest bidder has emboldened not only Adams but still more that old Protestant reactionary warhorse, Ian Paisley.

Tony Blair may have felt “the hand of history” on him when he presided over the historic Belfast agreement in 1998. But he has shown no awareness of the polarising pitfalls (following Lloyd George’s Irish practice) of speaking out of both sides of his mouth. Tragically, in physical terms, Northern Ireland does not now have just one Antifaschistischer Schutzwall: it has thirty-seven “peace walls” or similar barriers at Catholic-Protestant interfaces.

But what has really caught the attention of the international media, otherwise bored with a repetitive sectarian story, has been the way the McCartney sisters’ simple clarion-call for justice has cut through all the ideological obfuscations (a French journalist friend once likened talking to Adams with interviewing the Vietnamese war hero General Giap, with his langue du bois). Now a rattled McGuinness has warned the sisters against engaging in party politics (there have been suggestions they might stand against Sinn Féin candidates), reflecting his own monopolistic conception of it.

The sisters want to be sure that witnesses to their brother’s murder can, without the widespread intimidation that has occurred since, go to the police and give their evidence in court. Paramilitaries, by contrast, see themselves as judge, jury and executioner – as revealed by the decidedly Orwellian five-hour exchange between IRA representatives and the McCartney sisters in which the former, magnanimously as they appear to have thought, suggested they would kill the killers. The republicans’ refusal to endorse the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland – ironically, the only post-agreement institution left unshaken - meanwhile looks increasingly synthetic.

Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions are not going to be restored any time soon to a society more bitterly divided than ever. But there can no longer be an acceptance that its citizens – British or Irish by choice – should suffer a lesser right to justice by virtue simply of living there. The days when a Northern Ireland secretary (Mo Mowlam) could dismiss the IRA killing of a Catholic civilian as “internal housekeeping” must surely now be over.

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