IRA disarmament: irony and skepticism

Its a little ironic. The Irish Republican Army has actually been portrayed since 9-11 as the “good terrorists,” in contradistinction to Islamic extremists who supposedly have no “grievances” and with whom there can be no dialogue. Henry Kissinger wrote in a 2002 commentary:

European critics holding more traditional concepts have accused America of overreacting because terrorism is a phenomenon new primarily to Americans and that Europeans overcame terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s without undertaking global crusades. But the terrorism of two decades ago was of a different character. It was on the whole composed of nationals of the country where the terror took place (or, as in the case of the IRA in Britain, by a group with special national grievances of its own). Though some received foreign intelligence support, their bases were in the country where they operated. Their weapons of choice were mostly suitable for individual assaults. By contrast, Sept. 11 terrorists operate on a global basis, are motivated less by a specific grievance than by a generalized hatred and have access to weapons by which they can give effect to their strategy of killing thousands and ultimately far more if they acquire weapons of mass destruction.

So the IRA’s decision (announced yesterday) to formally lay down arms after a century of armed struggle (or 36 years, if one starts counting from the emergence of the Provisional IRA) comes at a propitious time for the counter-terrorist establishment. The group has outlived its usefulness to the security wonks, who now have much bigger fish to fry. The IRA’s announcement may have been a reaction to public outrage at the London bombings, which is a sign of political maturity; the security state, in turn, has exhibited no such capacity for self-criticism. Notes the Boston Globe today: “Human rights activists reacted with creeping concern that the same policies — including shoot-to-kill orders for police and detentions without trial — that they say undercut civil liberties for many Irish people during the IRA period have once again surfaced in the probe into the London bombings.”

Nor should the possibility of an eventual re-escalation of the Northern Ireland conflict be too quickly dismissed. Many remain skeptical of the long-term prospects for peace on both sides of Ulster’s sectarian divide. As we noted earlier this year, armed activity supposedly linked to former or current IRA cells has continued since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Whether this is due to genuine political dissent (after all, the joint Stormont Assembly was suspended in 2002, and has never been revived, as BBC and Eupolitix note) or merely to criminal rackets originally launched to sustain the insurgency taking on a life of their own is open to speculation. It is likely a combination of the two, and the question may not even be that relevant. Mark Durkan, leader of the moderate nationalist SDLP, warns in response to the IRA’s announcement that the potential still exists for rogue armed activies: “It’s important that we don’t have a notion of privatisation out there, that we don’t have a private army for political purposes any more but we’re allowed a privatised army for criminal or pseudo-commercial purposes. It’s also important that we don’t have a notion that people are licensed to do what they want as long as it is on a personal basis, not on a corporate basis.” (Ireland Online, July 29) The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) continues to list “IRA Splinter Groups” on its “Terrorism: Q&A” page, and the US State Department continues to maintain the so-called “Real IRA” on its list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” (having dropped the Provisional IRA from the list in 1999). And the US and its client government in Bogota both claim IRA militants are working with the FARC guerillas in Colombia. (See WW4 REPORT #90) Meanwhile, the Loyalist paramilitaries like the Ulster Freedom Fighters have largely maintained a ceasefire, but have never formally disarmed. And a July 30 New York Times story, primarily on the skepticism of the IRA’s critics that the group will really disarm, also notes (incidentally!) that the British Army still has 10,000 troops in Northern Ireland. Our readers will recall that these troops all-too-recently mixed it up with Belfast’s alienated Catholic youth. This one, alas, may not be over yet. (See also the UK Guardian’s timeline on the Northern Ireland conflict)