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

Unionists see the capitulation of soft nationalists to Sinn Fein's agenda as having dimmed hopes for a political middle ground, but there may be a way back. The SDLP's decline may push the party back to its fundamentals, and it may again become a moderating influence that can build political bridges between nationalism and unionism. Given its stodgy image among young Catholics, this would be a difficult task, but one worth the effort. A politically re-oriented and re-invigorated SDLP--more assertive about mediation and less aligned with Sinn Fein--would dilute unionist fears of a "pan-nationalist front." That would encourage unionist moderation and nudge Sinn Fein toward the center rather than the rebellious political periphery to which it is naturally drawn. If such moderation does not occur, hard-line unionists could create enormous trouble. Although the events of October 23 wrong-footed Paisley--he did not expect physical decommissioning ever to occur, and therefore has been uncharacteristically silent--he is not above sabotaging the Agreement, and he may have the political muscle to do so. If the British government makes further concessions to republicans, he could engineer the decisive defeat of pro-Agreement unionists in the June 2003 assembly elections.

This is the backdrop against which one must see the joint attempt by London and Dublin on August 1 to entice the IRA into a decommissioning move with a package of proposed concessions on police reform, fugitive amnesty and demilitarization. It was an effort met with republican temporizing and unionist outrage. Had Blair clearly underscored that, without decommissioning, nationalists would lose the benefits of devolution--in particular, functioning cross-border bodies and drastic police reform--he would have demonstrated greater even-handedness and might have prompted further compromises from the nationalists. Since Blair has little left to offer republicans without violating the consent principle altogether, threats rather than additional promises are more likely to produce serious disarmament gestures. But Blair demurs, and so affords republicans maximum political room to maneuver.

What Co-existence Requires

Even the thoroughgoing disarmament of paramilitaries would not ensure peace and harmony in Ulster. Decommissioning is not a panacea. Serious ructions are inevitable in a circumstance in which the two main political camps seek irreconcilable sovereign ends and harbor grudges rooted in generations of communal violence. By the same token, incremental changes in the status quo stand a far better chance of keeping the fundamental disagreement between Ulster unionists and Irish nationalists tolerably civilized than either side's insistence on the other's surrender. From either side's deepest credal beliefs, justice would require confrontation. The trick, then, is to so busy both sides with process issues that they have not the opportunity to dwell and act on those beliefs. Put differently, for two sides fated to sup at the same table, everyone needs long spoons.

From a practical unionist perspective, the IRA's manipulative foot-dragging on the inspections, burgeoning evidence of its conditional intent to take up arms again, and the continuation of brutal self-policing have necessitated disarmament. Decommissioning is not an operational security requirement; the IRA is sufficiently resourceful to purchase new weapons and construct bombs out of fertilizer. Most unionists understand that it is unrealistic to expect the IRA to emasculate itself by relinquishing all, or even most, of its weapons. But symbolic gestures can still further unionist-nationalist coexistence. The IRA has already made two such gestures and, as far as unionists are concerned, has been rewarded by its return to devolved government and an amnesty for its fugitive terrorists that the Belfast Agreement does not require. Unionists are likely to angle for at least two more things from Sinn Fein in the coming period before the 2003 elections.

First, they will demand that the IRA renounce terrorism permanently and irrevocably, which amounts to an unequivocal declaration that the war is over. Trimble and others have tried throughout the seven-year peace process to extract this concession, without success. They will keep trying, however, because they regard such a renunciation as a critical symbolic watershed. Republicans, it is true, have accepted devolution and the consent principle, and have made a couple of disarmament gestures. But ongoing IRA arms procurement and vigilantism, and the arrest of the three Provisional IRA men for training members of the FARC, justifies unionists' inference that if republicans do not continue to get what they want out of the peace process, they will simply fall back to violence. The IRA's reluctance to renounce the armed option--which they could easily do with crossed fingers, Arafat-style--suggests that honor, after a fashion, does matter to these terrorists. A pledge would create some political barrier to IRA backsliding and would help build unionist confidence.

Second, unionists will demand a cessation of the IRA's "self-policing" of Catholic areas. While the IRA has always argued that the Royal Ulster Constabulary's inability to win the confidence of the Catholic community has necessitated such action, unionists read ongoing kneecappings of juvenile Catholic car thieves as evidence that the IRA intends to remain in business as a private army. Indeed, the number of "vigilante" incidents in which IRA or loyalist paramilitaries administer "justice" to thieves or drug dealers actually rose by 40 percent from 2000 to 2001. Paramilitaries regard their own neighborhoods as their last redoubts and are not disposed to give up local tyranny. Yet the IRA has some incentive to end its intramural coercive practices, since doing so would create more space for compromise on police reform and demilitarization.

Neither of these aims seems absolutely fanciful. The IRA did declare the 1994 ceasefire and it did enter a non-violent political process. It did so on account of the military futility of its armed campaign and Sinn Fein's inability to garner more than about 10 percent of the vote while the IRA engaged in violence. It stands to reason, therefore, that further IRA concessions may be won if its military and political prospects remain constrained.

Other pressures also work to aid the unionist agenda. A return to violence would threaten Sinn Fein's electoral gains and damage its political credibility sufficiently to lose Dublin's sympathy, London's receptivity and Washington's good offices, all of which have been essential to legitimizing Irish republicanism in Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, September 11 has increased Tony Blair's and the unionists' leverage against the IRA. Clearly, political pressures from both the British Conservative Party and the United States make it easier for Blair to be tough on terrorists of any variety. Given Washington's new hypersensitivity to terrorism, its relative lack of interest in a strategically unimportant conflict, and its need to focus counterterrorism efforts principally on radical Muslim groups, the Bush Administration will expect Blair to keep his house in good counterterrorist order.

Further, the terrorist attacks on U.S. territory will probably discourage the IRA from returning to violence in deference to new sensitivities among Irish-American supporters (who are disproportionately represented in New York's fire and police departments, which lost hundreds in the World Trade Center) as well as the U.S. government. Such considerations could well limit the degree and frequency of Real IRA and dissident loyalist operations--at least for a while.

But whether even all this will produce an IRA renunciation of terrorism and a clear declaration that the war is over remains to be seen. Most likely not. On St. Patrick's Day 2002, the Police Service of Northern Ireland's Special Branch headquarters in East Belfast was broken into and sensitive intelligence files were stolen, including those concerning informants against the IRA. Security forces are confident that the Provisional IRA was involved. Then, in April, police uncovered a "hit list" of senior British and Northern Irish officials in West Belfast. Also in that month, Russian security services informed British military intelligence that the Provisionals had purchased at least twenty sophisticated an-94 armor-piercing assault rifles from Russian sources in the autumn of 2001. These developments strongly suggest that the IRA's non-violent path remains merely tactical rather than strategic. The last revelation further demonstrates the intentional operational emptiness of the decommissioning gestures: as the IRA puts old weapons "beyond use", they are simply replaced with newer and more effective ones.

Indeed, the appearance of reasonableness that the IRA has enjoyed in the British-Irish context--facilitated by Blair's see-no-evil approach--has emboldened it to undertake provocative relationships elsewhere that directly contravene American policies. Re-inforcing this Cold War habit was the replacement of a republican-friendly Bill Clinton by an uninterested George W. Bush and the September 11 attacks. First, in August 2001, three IRA men were arrested in Colombia. Then, in December, Adams went on an official four-day visit to Cuba, where he met Fidel Castro and criticized U.S. Cuba policy. In April 2002, a report to Congress by the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism substantiated suspicions that up to 15 Provisional IRA men had joined Iranian, Cuban and possibly Basque terrorists in Colombia between 1998 and 2001, and trained the FARC in urban terror techniques, including the use of secondary explosives and homemade mortars--both IRA innovations. Credible inferences arose in early and mid-2002 that the IRA had trained Palestinian snipers and taught Palestinian terrorists how to make booby-trap bombs that have since been used against Israeli soldiers. Finally, Gerry Adams in April refused to testify before a Congressional committee about the three alleged IRA men arrested in Colombia on the grounds that he might prejudice their trial--a position that managed to both intimate IRA involvement and deprecate U.S. security worries. What emerges is a picture of a republican leadership considerably less able to rally the international forces that served it so well in the 1990s, and more concerned about re-establishing its revolutionary credentials with its hard-line constituency at home.

Essay Types: Essay