The Long Spoons of Ulster

The Long Spoons of Ulster

Mini Teaser: Disturbing indications that the habits of veteran terrorists die hard in Northern Ireland.

by Author(s): Jonathan Stevenson

When the peace process began in 1994, the republican argument was that because the IRA had not been defeated militarily it was not obliged to relinquish any arms. As it became clear that unionists and the British government would insist on some form of decommissioning, Sinn Fein changed its position, maintaining that the Agreement requires only that the party use its influence to attain IRA decommissioning. When the assembly was suspended on February 2000 after less than three months over the IRA's refusal to decommission, Sinn Fein argued that with devolution delayed by the decommissioning impasse, republicans had not had enough time to establish the "trust" in devolved institutions that the Agreement's original timetable would have allowed.

Such arguments sum to a "constructive ambiguity" without which an agreement might have been impossible. It has permitted unionists and republicans alike to construe the agreement as they wished, but the IRA's unwillingness to decommission and unionists' insistence that it do so has continually plunged the assembly into crisis. The IRA's agreement in May 2000 to allow international inspectors (former African National Congress secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa and former President of Finland Martti Ahtisaari) to visit arms dumps convinced the UUP to re-enter government with Sinn Fein after a three-and-a-half month suspension on June 1, 2000. At that time, a new one-year deadline was established. The IRA retained control of the inspection process, however, choosing when and where inspections could be held and concealing the location of the two dumps. All the while, security forces were under tacit but unmistakable pressure to relax anti-terrorist enforcement efforts. In the event, the IRA allowed only three inspections. Nevertheless, Sinn Fein governed with unionists for 13 months until Trimble's July 2001 resignation.

In political terms, the unionists' insistence on decommissioning has not served them well. It has decreased their leverage over other issues of serious concern (in particular, police reform) and has afforded Sinn Fein a greater degree of control over the agenda than it might otherwise have had. But the unionist community is the operative majority in Northern Ireland, and for better or worse, it has defined IRA decommissioning as a moral imperative. Sinn Fein, for its part, has consistently argued that the key ingredient of the peace process is not a formal hand-over of weapons but rather the integrity of the IRA ceasefire. At the same time, it has cleverly exploited the unionists' immovable preoccupation with decommissioning to control the political process, understanding that because the IRA possesses the weapons it can strongly affect unionist behavior by showing flexibility or rigidity on decommissioning as need be.

Blair's Weakness

Sinn Fein's capacity to manipulate might have been tempered by resolute British government support for the unionist position, but Tony Blair has been feckless. The IRA's threat of violence, as Lionel Shriver rightly observed, "makes the British government dance." While paying lip service to the objective of decommissioning, Downing Street has tried to get republicans to disarm with concessions on police reform and demilitarization--rather than, say, threats that the cross-border bodies would cease to operate or that police reforms would be held in abeyance unless weapons were handed over. As a result, more often than not unionists have appeared to be spoilers, while Sinn Fein and the IRA looked like the Agreement's saviors. In casting any prospective collapse of the Agreement as an unalloyed catastrophe and refusing to entertain any "Plan B", Blair implicitly blackmailed unionists with the specter of renewed IRA terrorism. By so doing, he also intensified the unionist suspicion that he would never keep his pre-Agreement pledge to enforce decommissioning, thus making them feel as though the burden for achieving decommissioning falls entirely on them--which helps to account for unionists' preoccupation with it and which, as noted above, actually helps the IRA. Recent unionist electoral choices can be interpreted as a protest vote over a British government policy that piggybacks onto the IRA threat. Recent instability in the loyalist ceasefire and heightened dissident loyalist violence appear similarly sourced.

The IRA's adventures in Colombia and the September 11 events bailed Blair out by increasing U.S. intolerance of the IRA's refusal to disarm. Even so, Blair's soft approach has left London with little room to maneuver. Now that the IRA has forfeited a delicate sufficiency of weapons, the British government will be accused by republicans of "moving the goalposts" unless it delivers on its promises of accelerated police reform and demilitarization. Unionists expect these processes to involve an equitable give-and-take on weapons. But the IRA regards its October 23 disarmament token as leverage for getting major government and unionist concessions on matters that have nothing to do with the implementation of the Belfast Agreement. For example, General de Chastelain revealed on April 9 that another disarmament gesture had been made; once again, its nature and extent were left unspecified. Both prior and subsequent to this event, it appeared that the Labour Party would submit to Parliament draft legislation to give about 200 IRA fugitives some form of amnesty, this almost certainly on the strength of the IRA's pledge to forfeit that additional soupçon of weaponry. But amnesty is not mentioned in the Agreement.

Each side has tools to press its points. Unionists retain the power to withdraw from the executive and collapse the devolved assembly, and may do so should more substantial decommissioning not be forthcoming. Conversely, the IRA has not forsworn the use of violence, and terrorism presumably remains its fallback position should non-violent efforts prove inadequate to its purposes. Yet, as republicans have made the disarmament gestures that unionists have cast as their Holy Grail, the onus will stay on unionists to acquiesce to more concessions. That is perhaps why, in early December 2001, the UUP's ruling council voted 409 to 320 not to impose a deadline for additional decommissioning.

As ever, too, Blair's government is trying to marginalize the issue, having pressed the House of Commons before Christmas to extend the IICD's toothless mandate for five years rather than press the IRA for more product. The British government is probably also rewarding the IRA for its gestures by exerting quiet pressure on the security forces in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to relax anti-terrorist enforcement measures, such as searches for arms caches and attempts to recruit informants. On balance, then, the combination of cynical republican audacity, unionist shortsightedness and British appeasement have ensured that Sinn Fein and the IRA are credited with visionary statesmanship--even while the IRA remains one of the best armed terrorist groups in the world. Not even Yasir Arafat has been able to achieve such a feat.

Blair's Challenge

Notwithstanding Washington's role in convincing the IRA to make its move on October 23, further effective pressure on the IRA is not likely to come from outside actors. As long as the assembly is maintained and the IRA ceasefire holds, the Bush Administration will be inclined to regard the Provisional IRA as sufficiently quiet. Conversely, having technically met the primary unionist demand, and having distinguished itself from terrorists like bin Laden, the IRA can afford to resist further political compromise. Before Bill Clinton left office, he tried hard to get the IRA to move on decommissioning and discovered that he lacked sufficient clout. While American sponsorship of the peace process--in particular, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell's able chairmanship of the political negotiations--helped produce a formal agreement, prior to September 11 American diplomatic support had only marginal value in the current implementation phase of the peace process. Furthermore, a hands-off diplomatic philosophy fits discretionary situations like Northern Ireland's quite well. Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Department and the administration's point man for Northern Ireland, has noted that Northern Irish political leaders should get primary credit for the success of the peace process; he does not believe that intensive mediation by Washington will help at this stage. While outside intervention may still occur to some effect in crises, for increasing political stability it is indeed the local players that really matter. So what, then, will these local players--not least Prime Minister Blair--do?

After October 23, the IRA will be even less apt to respond to additional unionist ultimatums. That is because the SDLP, the only Northern Irish party with enough electoral leverage over republicans to make a lasting and material difference, is now close enough to the Sinn Fein view that it supplies ample political ballast. The now-retired SDLP party leader, John Hume, is generally credited with having drawn Sinn Fein toward a peace process and certifying Gerry Adams as a legitimate interlocutor through the Hume-Adams talks in 1993. But since then, save for perfunctory denunciations of political violence, there has been little daylight between Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Indeed, the SDLP hemorrhaged in the June election because it attempted to "out-green" Sinn Fein by refusing to meet unionists halfway on police reform or to support moderate unionists on decommissioning. This strategy backfired: marginal voters attributed nationalist gains to Sinn Fein assertiveness and thus saw no reason to take a poor man's version of hard-line nationalism when they could get the real thing.

Essay Types: Essay