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