End of the Road for the IRA?
Recent events in Northern Ireland have led to a noticeable sea-change in attitudes towards the Irish Republican Army. We may be on the verge of a major historic change that could have ramifications throughout these islands.
This evening I noticed that Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has received further rebuffs in the USA, as normally staunch supporters such as Edward Kennedy and Peter King start cold shouldering the Northern Irish Republican movement, refusing to meet with Adams and calling for the IRA to be disbanded. The murder of Robert McCartney and the brave campaign for justice by his family has clearly influenced many. Have the IRA finally reached a turning point?
Back in in 1994 the IRA called a ceasefire and the much vaunted "peace process" began. Eleven years later it's a shock just how far things have come in many areas. Virtually all major political parties have signed up to some form of cross-community power sharing executive as the solution to the province's political problem (though there is disagreement about who should be included/excluded in such an executive). The right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide for themselves whether they wish to remain in the United Kingdom or join a United Ireland has been accepted by the main nationalist and republican parties and the Republic of Ireland has amended its constitution to remove its claim to the North. Sinn Fein members have taken their seats in a Northern Irish assembly, first doing so barely a year after fighting an election on a "No return to Stormont" line. The Ulster Unionists and even the Democratic Unionists have appeared on platforms and television programs with Sinn Fein members.
Yet we are still talking about the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons and the potential disbanding of the Provisional IRA. It's true they are not the only terrorist group and that more needs to be done about loyalist paramilitaries. But no loyalist paramilitary's political representatives are on the verge of entering the government of Northern Ireland and Progressive Unionist Party (the political wing of the Ulster Volunteer Force) leader David Ervine is a solitary figure in the suspended Assembly. By contrast Sinn Fein could claim the Deputy First Ministership and several key ministerial posts in a re-established Executive and many are worried about this whilst they retain weapons.
It's easy to forget just how many times the issue has been fudged before. There was a time when the British and Irish governments would not let Sinn Fein into all party talks on the future of the province until decommissioning had taken place, and the Unionist parties made it clear that if this bar was lifted then they would walk out and derail the process. Then the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated and voted for overwhelmingly in a referendum on the understanding that there would be decommissioning before the release of paramilitary prisoners and the establishment of an executive. But both the latter happened without it. Time and again the political system in Northern Ireland has ground to a halt as the Ulster Unionists have stood firm, then been forced by the government into a compromise. It is no wonder that electoral support for the Democratic Unionists has soared amidst this background.
The release of the paramilitary prisoners is now seen even by many who still support the Good Friday Agreement as a clear mistake on the government's behalf. Time and again the IRA has evaded what many want. However it's telling that up until now most of the calls have come from the Unionist community and the British government. Even the nationalist SDLP has evaded the issue of decommissioning in the past. Now we see many who have previously given support to the IRA now prepared to stand up and say it is time for them to decommission. The Westminster vote to deprive Sinn Fein of their parliamentary allowances was supported by all parts of the House, including many who are traditionally sympathetic to Republicans.
Why particular cases become cause celebres has always been unclear to me. Just as Albert Dreyfus was far from the only person to be wrongly sentenced for passing on state secrets, Robert McCartney is far from the only IRA victim from the nationalist community. For a long time it was a complete taboo to make the stand that his family is making. They have shown real bravery in refusing to accept the "normal" process, refusing to accept the IRA's offer to carry out an arbitrary execution and instead demanded justice. It is a stand that has made many question just why the IRA still needs to exist.
And yet the first electoral returns suggest it has not had much impact. Opinion polls traditionally underplay support for Sinn Fein, but they offer no indication of any collapse in support. A by-election in the Republic has seen the Sinn Fein vote hold steady, rising by 43 absolute votes from 6042 to 6087. Due to a fall in turnout their percentage share has risen by 3%. How Sinn Fein will perform in the forthcoming general election, when they will be fiercely defending their slender hold on Fermanagh & South Tyrone, whilst also hoping to gain Newry & Armagh and possibly Foyle (Derry) remains to be seen. But with the McCartney sisters threatening to stand on the single issue of justice for their brother (and also independent Doctor Kieran Deeney standing on the issue of hospital provision in Omagh in Sinn Fein held West Tyrone) there is a real danger that voters may decide that there is a better way to cast a vote for getting rid of the IRA than by trying to keep Sinn Fein in the democratic process.
Some cynics might argue that we've seen this all before. But I think we've seen for the first time in a very long while the drying up of grassroots support for the IRA. After current events no Unionist party is going to be prepared to make a fudged deal with Sinn Fein. The disbanding of the IRA has become an absolute requirement for Sinn Fein's participation in any future government. Even the British government seems to have accepted this. We may finally see a movement towards normality in Northern Ireland. It has been overdue too long.
Maybe the recent events have made me more cynical as my initial reaction showed. But if the IRA's support base has dried up then this move is less surprising. I've also now seen the footage of the statement being made - and that it was read out in person by a former prisoner is in itself an encouraging sign - and perhaps this truly is a step forward. But at the moment we can only have stronger peace of mind. The restoration of an acceptable political system that all can accept is still a major hurdle to come.
Sinn Fein's recent election results have been if anything consolidating - holding Fermanagh & South Tyrone amidst a Unionist struggle generating multiple candidates, gaining Newry & Armagh as everyone expected but failing to gain Foyle - indeed the survival of the SDLP is the overlooked story of the general election (many forget that before the election a common betting game was whether the SDLP or Ulster Unionists would suffer a greater defeat!). It's also forgotten that there has long been limited actual support in the Republic for a United Ireland and many believe the IRA has merely diminished this. Peace will bring a more stable society - ironically all international precedents suggest that this will reduced support further. I doubt there will be a United Ireland even in our grandchildren's time.