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

The Belfast Agreement as History

IN A TIME when terrorism of any kind is seen as an existential threat the Belfast Agreement absent terrorist disarmament would have functioned as especially bad precedent. In some respects, it already has. On the strength of the Agreement, the Basque separatists of Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA) overtly modeled its 1998-99 flirtation with a ceasefire and peace process on the IRA's strategy. ETA hoped to get a mass prisoner release without disarmament. Yet Jose Maria Aznar's government would not consider prematurely setting ETA prisoners free or otherwise forego disarmament. ETA's unrealistic expectations, based on a decommissioning-free version of the Belfast Agreement, stopped negotiations with Spain at the door and sent ETA back to unbridled terror. More broadly, negotiated resolutions of the Israeli-Palestinian and Kashmir conflicts that do not involve the arrest and disarmament of terrorists are scarcely imaginable.

So it is plainly counterproductive that the Belfast Agreement has established the precedent that politically motivated terrorists (i.e., most of them) can get out of jail free when their friends end violence; this dispensation may be counted upon to increase the incentives of all political malcontents to kill for political advantage. Other requirements of the Agreement--punitive police reform, super-majorities and the institutional entrenchment of sectarian polarities, to name three-also provide political ammunition to minority-backed insurgencies.

The IRA's gesture of October 23, however, furnished some offsetting precedent. Indeed, within less than a week ETA stated that it was willing to lay down its arms provided Madrid holds a regional referendum on independence. Although Aznar refused, ETA's offer signaled a degree of flexibility that had not been in evidence since it ended its ceasefire in December 1999. Given that Sinn Fein is its principal source of diplomatic support, it seems likely that ETA, too, felt cornered by the combination of September 11 and October 23. Furthermore, the fact that American threats of diplomatic abandonment produced--or, at minimum, hastened--the IRA's accommodation on decommissioning means that ultimately the IRA itself blinked out of weakness. For comparable reasons, the NATO- and EU-brokered dispensation in Macedonia, in which more substantial rebel disarmament proceeded concurrently with political reform, is also salutary.

As in Macedonia, prospects in Northern Ireland have recently turned from completely bleak to marginally better. During the summer, civil breakdown accompanied a near collapse of the political situation. The April-September Protestant "marching season" was especially acrimonious in 2001, and sectarian riots in North Belfast and loyalist petrol bomb attacks throughout the province became almost daily occurrences. On August 1, the dissident Real IRA set off a car bomb in a residential area of west London, which appeared to indicate more lethal intent than had recent operations. But Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA's ambitious all-Ireland political agenda has blunted Real IRA accusations that the republican movement is settling for a partitionist solution. The statesmanlike character of the decommissioning gesture, too, has elevated the political stature of Irish republicanism. Thus, the Real IRA's incentive to increase terrorist activity is now relatively low. Prisoner release and five years of comparative cal m have also made more IRA men reluctant to risk jail and the security forces less inclined to alienate the nationalist community. Even if the IRA were to return to violence, it would find world opinion less susceptible to manipulation than heretofore. Post-September 11, the IRA would also garner less support from fish America, its traditional source of strength.

The peace process is still vulnerable to serious risks, as must be the case whenever irreconcilable principles clash. The IRA's disarmament gestures, though negligible in terms of actual hardware, symbolized surrender to many hard-line Irish republicans and is likely to produce some defections from the Provisional IRA to the Real IRA, which opposes the peace process. Conversely, an apparent condition of the first disarmament move, approved by the House of Commons on December 18, was that Sinn Fein MPs would get access to Parliament facilities and entitlement to £107,000 each per annum in expenses, despite their refusal to take the oath of office or participate in government. Understandably, this and other concessions have humiliated unionists and may generate sufficient anger to deprive Trimble of his current precarious control of the UUP.

Loyalists continue to pose a threat to political stability as well. Unlike Sinn Fein and the IRA, die-hard loyalists have no real political power to lose from intransigence. They have little incentive to relinquish their primary source of influence: weapons. Gerry Adams, in a rare moment of consistency, has said that Sinn Fein will not press for loyalist decommissioning, requiring instead only an intact loyalist ceasefire. But loyalist violence is on the rise, as indicated by Northern Ireland Secretary of State John Reid's declaration in October that the government no longer recognized the ceasefire of the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), one of the two main loyalist groups, and the European Union's and U.S. State Department's subsequent addition of the UDA and three smaller loyalist groups to their respective lists of terrorist organizations subject to asset freezes. Further unionist concessions and Catholic social ascendancy are likely to fuel loyalist violence, which could in turn produce community pressu re on the Provisional IRA as well as the Real IRA to retaliate. And London's or Dublin's inclination to capitulate to extra-Agreement demands, republican retaliation for loyalist violence, or republican refusal to take other steps toward demilitarization could impel unionists to precipitate another make-or-break moment for the Agreement. All sides remain at the table, but their spoons get longer each day.

YET DESPITE London's diplomatic weakness, unionism's political maladroitness and the IRA's artful dilatoriness, minimal decommissioning has for now rescued the devolved assembly. For peace to take deeper root, however, unionists need either substantial additional decommissioning, or the IRA's permanent renunciation of violence and a significant reduction in terrorist self-policing.

If London thinks outside the small box that is Northern Ireland, it will see that helping unionists, rather than further appeasement of republicans, is in the British national interest. Though it is no longer an imperial power, Britain still, as Lord Hurd has put it, "punches above its weight" in international affairs. One reason is its "special relationship" with the United States, but another is its capacity--unlike other European powers--to deliver effective military force when asked. Britain's combat readiness turns in significant part on its steady blooding in Northern Ireland, where it has lost over 750 soldiers since 1969. But military morale and the willingness of British soldiers to fight depend on the British government's defense of their past sacrifices. September 11 affords London the political leverage to vindicate its countrymen's losses in Northern Ireland by getting tougher with Sinn Fein and the IRA, which would also enhance its credibility as a foe of transnational terrorism. Past timidity notwithstanding, London can still make the Belfast Agreement acceptable history and better precedent as well as expedient conflict resolution.

Jonathan Stevenson is editor of Strategic Survey, research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and author of "We Wrecked the Place": Contemplating an End to the Northern Irish Troubles (Simon & Schuster, 1996).

Essay Types: Essay