The Blanket

Time Has Run Out For An Armed IRA

Anthony McIntyre • Observer, 20/10/2002

On Thursday in Belfast Tony Blair showed the IRA a red card. The Sinn Fein leadership have tried to brave the matter out by indicating that Blair raised a number of concerns that need to be addressed collectively and that he was not merely targeting republicans. What truth there is here, those other concerns were merely the cotton wool which shielded the blade as it was forcibly driven home. Whatever hesitancy the British state previously harboured about provoking the IRA has evaporated. Blair signalled this confidence in his comment that in the post 9/11 climate, ‘there is a complete hatred of terrorism’.

The decision at this juncture for the Sinn Fein leadership is not whether the IRA should go off the field as ordered to but how long it should take. What has been learned from the torturously long process of decommissioning is that the organisation would prefer to go crab wise and delay reaching the touchline for as long as possible. But the Sinn Fein leadership know that the longer society here functions in the absence of the institutions coupled with a British belief that the IRA will not be going back to war then the desire to have them up and running once again will diminish accordingly along with republican bargaining power. With Sinn Fein needing the ministerial positions that the institutions provide more than the unionists - direct rule suits the latter fine - an urgency will be generated within the republican party to ensure their re-instatement.

There is nothing very surprising in what Tony Blair had to say. It has been clear for quite some time that republicans had been losing the argument in relation to the question of the IRA. Issues such as the arrest of three republicans in Colombia, the Castlereagh break in and the recent Stormont espionage incident have all generated an image - regardless of what material basis there may be - of Sinn Fein, the IRA and what Gerry Adams terms ‘ethically indefensible terrorism’ holding hands.

Since the start of the peace process republicans have conceded more than any other party to the negotiations. They have been defeated on every issue from the question of a British withdrawal, the consent principle, decommissioning, the total abolition of Stormont, and policing. Republicanism has been completely hollowed out to the point where its shell has been filled with core constitutional nationalist rather than republican positions. This being so, the optimum way for the Sinn Fein leadership to maintain support has been to sell the new strategy in terms of the impact it is having on unionism. And what has destabilised unionism more than anything else is its firm suspicion that Sinn Fein merely provides the sheep’s clothing for the IRA. The limit of this strategy, however, is that the destabilisation of unionism cannot be allowed to run as far as to destabilise the institutions to the point of collapse. Given that this is now a fait accompli the inherent weakness in republican strategy is all too evident.

While Sinn Fein at one time was an embarrassment to the IRA, Sinn Fein’s hegemony within republicanism has led to a situation where the IRA is now an embarrassment to Sinn Fein. Why then does it remain?

The republican writer Danny Morrison, suggesting a defensive rationale, has claimed that ‘the IRA continues to exist because nationalists still feel vulnerable.’ But as the republican activist Martin Meehan pointed out its defensive role is more psychological than practical. In effect the IRA, through circumstances beyond its control, has proved wholly incapable of defending the nationalist community against the type of murderous attacks the UDA have been waging for some considerable time.

The strongest explanation for maintaining the IRA is that the republican leadership may prevent those volunteers presently in the organisation drifting to others such as the Continuity or Real IRAs, each of which are wedded to campaigns of armed struggle. Republican leaders are now tasked with finding a way to wind up the IRA while at the same time preventing such haemorrhaging.

In this regard Blair has offered them a way out. By calling not for its disbandment but for ‘the continuing existence of the IRA as an active paramilitary organisation’ to cease he has permitted the IRA certain ‘wriggle room.‘

An option open to the Sinn Fein leadership is to stand down the structures of the IRA - sold to the grassroots as a means to outmanoeuvre the largely imaginary securocrats in the British establishment who will be accused of trying to provoke the IRA back to war. IRA members may be told that the organisation will not be disbanded and that no one shall lose their volunteer status. The energies of those volunteers could rapidly be redirected into maintaining commemorative culture. The organisation would become little other than an old comrades association. Martin McGuinness alluded to this in 2000: ‘the old IRA existed in the South for years. They attended commemorations, they buried old comrades, and they did so peacefully.’ At that point the British Government may be inclined to legalise it - the precedent is the legalisation of the UVF in 1973, although this decision was later reversed - on the basis of it no longer being involved in armed activity. The vast bulk of the IRA will accept this as readily as it did decommissioning of IRA weaponry.

The three ‘D’s of Provisional republicanism - defence, defiance, and dissent - now stand for defeat, decommissioning and dissolution. As a movement that began its life vowing to remain in existence until it secured British withdrawal, it has been pushed into a position from which it can only pursue the effective disbandment of the IRA and the reform of the RUC. Tony Blair commented that ‘the British couldn't eliminate the IRA.’ If true, Sinn Fein will succeed where the British failed.




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It is better to be defeated on principle than to win on lies.
- Arthur Calwell
Index: Current Articles

24 October 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Stand Up And Be Counted
Mickey Donnelly


Read It And Weep

Mick Hall


Particularity Or Universality?
Liam O Ruairc


Time Has Run Out For An Armed IRA
Anthony McIntyre


Thoughts On The Coming War
Sean O Torain


The Letters Page has been updated.


20 October 2002


Dancing on the Graves of Ten Men Dead
Anthony McIntyre


The Wily Ways of a Boy From Ballymurphy

Barry White


SF's Ruse Coloured Glasses
Brian Mór


Historic Shirts of the World
Brian Mór


Liam O Ruairc


From Belfast To Genoa - Now Florence
Davy Carlin


An Open Letter to the Democratic National Committee
Jeanie Bauer


The Letters Page has been updated.




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