Useful fantasies

Why Northern Ireland had to pretend the IRA was gone for good.

Michele Barbero
10 September 2015

It may not sound particularly uplifting, but peace often needs lies and ambiguity to take root. This is certainly the case in Northern Ireland, where the legacy of the civil war remains a contentious minefield that encompasses not only the crimes of the past, but also the interpretation of the present: for example when it comes to questions like what paramilitary organisations are still in place, and what their current structures and objectives are.

In August, after ex-IRA gunman Kevin McGuigan was shot dead in Belfast, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland declared that Provisional IRA (PIRA) members were involved in the murder. He added that “some PIRA organisational infrastructure continues to exist”. As constable George Hamilton made clear, this doesn’t mean that the latest killing was sanctioned by the PIRA at senior level, but that wasn’t enough to avert a major political crisis.

Sensing the possibility to score big electoral gains by presenting itself as a party that doesn’t accept compromises, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) affirmed that the latest developments had undermined its trust in the republican front and pulled out of the fragile government in Stormont, formed by a loveless coalition of republicans and unionists.

Hamilton’s statement is the first official admission by the Ulster police that the Provisional IRA is still alive and active, since the “Provos" announced the end of their armed campaign against the British rule in 2005. Due to ingenuity, carelessness or miscalculation, the police have thus broken a long-standing taboo in Northern Ireland: they have done no more than stating an obvious matter of fact, but up to this point the latter had been implicitly or explicitly denied by most major players involved in the peace process.

Despite the UUP’s scandalised reaction, the assessment by the police hardly comes as a surprise. Ten years ago the Provos officially declared that their war was over and that they would decommission their weapons. But their own communiqué, which read that “volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means”, didn’t signal in any way that the organisation itself would cease to exist. In fact, all signs suggest not only that the group hasn't disappeared, but also that it never abandoned violence as a way to achieve its goals.

In 2008, sources from the Republic of Ireland’s security forces were quoted as saying that the organisation survived “in shadow form”, had recently recruited and was still able to carry out attacks. Along with McGuigan's, in the past few years other murders have occurred in which PIRA involvement, if not yet proven by the judiciary, is considered extremely likely by most observers. That is the case of the brutal killing of 21-year-old Paul Quinn, allegedly beaten to death by men in black military-style clothing as a punishment for repeatedly brawling with local IRA members.

Also the idea that the PIRA kept its promise and surrendered all of its arms is very hard to believe, because no one knows how many weapons the IRA possessed in the first place and no proper verification was ever possible. According to Jon Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool who’s written extensively on the peace process in Northern Ireland, “no one believes that they got rid of all their weapons. That’s fantasy. […] It’s easier to prove the existence of God than it is to prove that the IRA decommissioned all its weapons.” But in 2005 everybody in Northern Ireland was eager to believe this lie. The cooperation between unionist and republican parties, hammered out with great difficulty in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, had collapsed. Once again, the future looked grim. Therefore, when the Provos finally agreed to end their armed campaign, to openly accuse them of retaining some of their weapons would have been politically untenable. “This great political fiction," says Tonge, was maintained "for the convenience of the peace process."

Nurturing this useful “fantasy" was no easy task, and required good political communication skills. This is especially true for Sinn Féin, the nationalist party associated to the Provisional IRA throughout the Troubles. Since 2005, Sinn Féin’s president Gerry Adams has consistently said that the PIRA has “gone away” and “left the stage”; however, he carefully avoids the term “disbanded”, never making fully clear if what he means is that the organisation doesn’t exist anymore or rather that it has evolved into something different. As a commentator wrote on the Belfast Telegraph, “if I have ‘left the stage’ I may be backstage. If I have ‘gone away’ I am only somewhere else. The important question is where I have gone away to.”

The answer to that question, when it comes to the Provisional IRA, is that although there is no doubt that the organisation still exists and kills, its nature has fundamentally changed. It is no longer engaged in a campaign of terrorism against the state. Rather, it is a sort of secretive club committed to defending its affiliates against their personal enemies. In a way, it reminds of the Italian mafia. “If you attack a member of the PIRA, a member of the PIRA might come looking for you,” explains professor Tonge, "in the same way in which if you attack a member of a mafia family you’ve got to be careful of the consequences.” This is what probably happened not only in Paul Quinn’s, but also in Kevin McGuigan’s case. According to the police, his murderers believed he was involved in the killing of a former IRA commander, Gerard ‘Jock' Davison; and they took action to settle the score.

Therefore, even if the Provos haven’t really “gone away”, their violence has lost its political function. Of course this is little consolation to the relatives of those who were shot or beaten to death by PIRA men. But such shift in the organisation’s nature means that the group is no longer a threat (or at least it does not intend to be so) for the power-sharing institutions in Stormont.

The central place held by the Provisional IRA issue in Northern Ireland’s public debate may therefore seem somewhat undeserved. Especially considering that Ulster certainly isn’t short of terrorist groups that never gave up on their armed campaign against the British rule, and claim the "Irish Republican Army" title for themselves. Organisations such as the "Real IRA” and the "Continuity IRA”, for instance, are still perceived as a major threat by large swathes of the Protestant community.

But in a country where the wounds of the Troubles are hardly healing and inter-communal mistrust remains painfully acute, the PIRA is still a powerful symbol of the past that keeps haunting both politics and society. Confronted with a reality of sectarianism, lingering violence and ever-changing political incentives, Northern Ireland's “useful fantasies” have never appeared more fragile.

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