The Provisional IRA has put some more of its weapons beyond use. This very welcome act seems to have been planned, unlike the last time in October when the Provos were apparently bounced into a decommissioning gesture in the wake of the September 11th terrorist atrocities in America and the discovery of active IRA links with FARC ultra-leftists in Colombia. According to General DeChastelain this is a substantial amount. On the face of it, this is another significant move which suggests that the Provos remain committed to the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. This step ensures that the Assembly and the other institutions set up under the GFA will run their course to the end of their first term in May 2003.
Some anti-agreement unionists have dismissed this reported act of decommissioning as being a cynical publicity stunt to enhance Sinn Féin’s prospects in next month’s Leinster House general election and to divert attention from allegations of IRA involvement in the mysterious break-in at the Castlereagh police barracks on St Patrick’s Day. It seems to me that the second point is unlikely. Most observers seem convinced that the Castlereagh break-in was some sort of inside job. Even strong critics of the IRA like Fred Cobain MLA (a unionist member of the new policing board) dismiss the alleged IRA connection as a fantasy. It seems more likely that the widespread arrests of leading Provos in connection with the Castlereagh break-in was itself a clumsy water-muddying distraction from the pervasive suspicion that elements of the security services were involved.
I don’t doubt, however, that the forthcoming Leinster House general election has been a significant factor in the IRA’s decision to decommission some more weapons. Both major political parties in the Republic are concerned that Sinn Féin candidates could cost them marginal seats in the election and they have begun to denounce the SF-IRA connection. Some have even said that they will never sit in coalition government with the Shinners even though they advocate that the other parties up here in Ulster must do this. This act puts the Free State parties on the wrong foot, so the anti-GFA unionists claim of Provo cynicism here is probably not too far off the mark. This act must have been planned well in advance and Easter week seems a natural time to do it, given its place in republican mythology and the growing confidence of the Provos that things are going their way. Now they can bask in the light of public adulation and lecture others on their lack of commitment to the peace process.
However, there are some questions that Sinn Féin has still left hanging in the air. SF spokesmen have been reticent in explaining the exact role of the relationship between the IRA and FARC. They have thrown their weight behind a campaign to bring Niall Connolly (SF’s representative in Cuba), and his colleagues James Monaghan and Martin McCauley back home from Colombia. Yet they do not want the forthcoming US Congressional hearings into IRA/FARC links to go ahead. Gerry Adams is humming and hahhing about giving evidence. The suggestion from republican sources is that this would jeopardise the peace process.
Provo groupies in North America like Rep. Ben Gilman and Fr. Sean McManus have done their damnedest to stop or at least slow down the hearings. In this election year, Fr McManus has even written to Congressmen suggesting trouble from the Irish-American lobby if they don’t bury these potentially embarrassing hearings. The Provos are keen to see all manner of enquiries into the activities of the British state and loyalists over the past three decades, no matter how badly it impacts on Protestant attitudes to the GFA. After all, the truth must be told, whatever the cost. As far as FARC links are concerned, though, it’s a different story. We are expected to forget all about lest we jeopardise the peace. Does this not smell of blackmail?
Still, it would be churlish not to welcome this act of decommissioning as a step in the right direction. But if the peace process means anything at all, the true test of peace would be for the IRA, INLA, UVF and UDA to disband their paramilitary organisations completely and stick to politics alone to advance their political aims. This seems unlikely given the reported involvement of members of paramilitary factions in the nightly street disturbances in North Belfast and other towns in Ulster. We’re not out of the woods yet.
David Kerr, Belfast, April 2002
David is Webmaster at Ulster Nation