The Terrorist as Statesman

The Terrorist as Statesman

Mini Teaser: Washington, London and Dublin all declare that the peace process must continue--no matter how many people get killed. Gerry Adams completely agrees.

by Author(s): Kevin Myers

Unfortunately, Nelson Mandela and others in the African National Congress (ANC) have been deluded into thinking that the IRA campaign in Northern Ireland was a human rights campaign, and few things are quite as distressing as seeing a good man serving as moral buttress to his precise opposite. No wonder he features prominently in the Adams book. An endorsement from him--which is what he certainly appears to have given the Sinn Fein leader--puts a lot of gasoline in anyone's moral tank.

But is this not all very churlish? Are Adams and McGuinness not men of peace? Well, yes but only because they have no choice. By the late 1980s, the IRA campaign was going nowhere. To be sure, IRA terrorists still killed people--building workers, traffic cops and civilians honoring the dead of two world wars. But the terrorist campaign was achieving nothing, and worse, loyalist terrorists (aided by allies in the British security services) were now increasingly targeting republicans and their families.

The result was the peace process, in which the main proponent of constitutional nationalism in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader John Hume, played a vital part. But Hume, a man uncontaminated by violence, could not deliver the IRA. Adams, contemplating decades of bloody stalemate, could. And with great adroitness--for he is a highly skilled and deeply intimidating operator--over the years, he did. But in the negotiations to end the conflict, the representatives of democratic forces did a wretched job. By the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Sinn Fein-IRA representatives were to be allowed into an Executive administering Northern Ireland: but no binding commitments were extracted from the republican leadership that the IRA would disarm. This meant that the IRA could not lose.

Indeed, far from disarming, the IRA continued to re-arm, buying guns in Florida and importing a shipment of an-94 rifles from Russia, the most deadly weapon of its kind in the world. Punishment shootings and beatings of "anti-social elements" continued in IRA-dominated areas. Whenever the IRA felt like killing someone, it did, even though its representatives were now in government. It even targeted British agents, killing one and wounding another.

What was the response of the British and Irish governments, the joint guarantors to the Agreement, to these violations? There was none: none whatsoever. For far worse than the IRA's failure to comply with the terms and the spirit of the Agreement--understandable, considering the nature of the beast--was the abject refusal of the British and Irish governments to punish that failure. Small wonder that Sinn Fein-IRA felt themselves immune to any law, and to the terms of any contract.

Their delinquencies became spectacular. An IRA unit raided the main police headquarters in Belfast, and made off with computer disks containing the entire counter-terrorist intelligence files. Hundreds of police officers were obliged to move home, and the British army had to draw up contingency plans to evacuate much of the police force in the event of the IRA cease-fire ending.

How was Sinn Fein-IRA punished for this? Well, again, it wasn't. (Naturally, none of this is in the Adams book). So is it surprising that the next step was for the IRA to master a major intelligence operation against not just its partners in the Northern Ireland Executive, but against the American, British and Irish governments also? Its trawl through computer communications even netted confidential exchanges between George W. Bush and the Irish and British prime ministers.

This was a major act of intelligence warfare. But far from Sinn Fein being expelled from the Executive for its complicity in these deeds, the entire Executive was instead suspended. All parties were thus punished for one's party's criminal delinquency--and all this was done with the complicity and approval of the United States government, and in particular of its Northern Ireland observer, Richard Haass, who on this issue was less than adamant on his support for democracy.

How is this possible? How can mature and experienced government officials in Dublin, London and Washington continue to tolerate Sinn Fein's grotesque bad faith? Well, in part, of course, almost anything seems better than the past, a return to which would of course be a catastrophe (though even the dumbest IRA volunteer knows that post-9/11, such a thing is impossible). But there is another reason why governments tolerate republican delinquency.

The Northern Ireland peace process has at its heart no central, guiding morality. For far from politics being an essentially amoral business--as people tend to think--it is in fact intensely moral. It speaks to the unspoken moral consensus which--as a matter of course--guards family, life and liberty. Because Sinn Fein-IRA do not understand that consensus--and merely ape what they can perceive of it--they cannot respond instinctively to its demands. They are terrorists on furlough, in a dance class they don't understand. They get some of the steps, but not the meaning of the dance.

That much has been glaringly obvious to the Protestant, unionist people of Northern Ireland. And inevitably, the only person they could punish for the failure to make Sinn Fein-IRA comply with the terms of the agreement of six years ago was David Trimble, the "moderate" unionist leader who had sacrificed almost everything, including principle, to keep the Executive in existence. His party once dominated Protestant politics; now it must take second place to the growing might of Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, who are utterly opposed to any deal with Sinn Fein-IRA.

Within the nationalist, Catholic community, the same polarization has occurred. The lessons of the peace process have been absorbed: why be moderate, when extremism will be unpunished and moreover, might well succeed? Sinn Fein has now displaced the Social Democratic and Labour Party as the main party of Catholics. The IRA now rules nationalist areas with fascist rigor--there is an epidemic of young male suicides in such areas, directly connected to republican punishment-beatings.

The Troubles are over, but the sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland are more intense than they were at their height. The police force has effectively been destroyed, and there is no institutional authority left in the Province. Worst of all, the authors of some of the most wicked deeds in Europe since World War II have been embraced and feted--both by good men like Nelson Mandela, and by effete and winsome charlatans like the Clintons and Tony Blair. Evil is rewarded and murderers welcomed in the White House, and Jean McConville's grave is visited only by her wretched, baffled offspring.

Kevin Myers has been a columnist with the Irish Times since 1981. Before then he worked in Belfast. He has also covered the Lebanese and former-Yugoslav civil wars.

Essay Types: Book Review