Belfast December 2001

Police Powers

How the IRA leverages the peace process

In his post-September 11 address to a joint session of Congress, President George W. Bush singled out terrorist organizations with "global reach" as America's enemy in the new war on terrorism. Until just weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon the IRA would not have been thought to possess such reach. But in August came the news that suspected IRA activists had been charged with training guerrilla forces for many weeks in Colombia in the use of explosives—to be employed against the Colombian government, the recipient of considerable U.S. aid, financial and military, as an ally in the U.S. war on drug traffickers. Sinn Fein, the political voice of the IRA, denied all knowledge of this foray in global reach, but American officials made it known that they did not believe the disclaimers and called on the IRA to discontinue all activities in South America. "Any collaboration with the FARC by any individual or organization is of utmost concern to us," said Phillip Reeker, a State Department spokesman. September 11 and the IRA's Colombian connection have already had repercussions in the American-led "peace process" in Northern Ireland.

The latest phase of the "peace process" launched in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair was on the brink of collapse when, in October, the IRA announced that it had put some weapons "beyond use." In my view, this announcement was an effort by the IRA to prevent the severing of its vital fundraising links with sympathetic Irish-Americans following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. It does not represent an enduring breakthrough: it is simply a tactical ploy, and the IRA will retain the bulk of its weapons well into the future.

Difficult even for Irish readers to follow in detail, the peace process must have run a course quite mystifying to most Americans. Headlines trumpeting hope have alternated with their opposites throughout much of 2001. Americans need, however, to face the consequences of their good will. Through the fog of events one of these consequences is now clear: Sinn Fein and the IRA have been the main beneficiaries of the "Good Friday Agreement," sealed in April of 1998 by the American mediator, former senator George Mitchell, of Maine.

It must be stressed that for all practical purposes, the political party Sinn Fein and the 500 or so paramilitary Provisional IRA men (Provos) "in the field" are one and the same organization. Hitherto their combined strategy of good cop-bad cop has worked to perfection, keeping David Trimble's pro-agreement Unionists off balance; extorting concession after concession from the British government with the ever potent threat of resumed violence in mainland Britain; and, to crown it all, winning applause from a confused "world opinion."

The agreement's major bonus for them was the release of all IRA prisoners then serving sentences for murder, arson, and related offenses. The prisoners were released while the IRA still had all its weapons and was using them for systematic intimidation, including barbaric maimings euphemistically known as "punishment beatings." Political innocents who supported the prisoners' release were led to believe that it would soon be followed by the handing in of arms. This was not the case. Why should it have been? The IRA knew that the fear inspired by its continued possession of those arms was the main source of the concessions made to Sinn Fein-IRA.

It is true that the British released convicted Protestant terrorists along with the IRA convicts. The IRA leadership had not objected to that condition, because it was necessary to the freedom of the IRA prisoners. The relationship between the IRA and Protestant paramilitaries is an asymmetrical one: the former is a tightly disciplined, highly efficient fighting force with widespread support in the Catholic community; the latter have long been no more than a rabble, without real political objectives and—although guilty of the sporadic and indiscriminate murder of Catholics—mainly occupied with extortion and racketeering, especially around the drug trade. They have almost no support in the Protestant community—nothing remotely like the political clout exercised by the Provos in the Catholic community, especially in West Belfast.

The IRA knew when it agreed to the release of the Protestant paramilitaries that some of them would go on a rampage. But again, the IRA had no objection: the activities of those paramilitaries allow the Provos to appear in their chosen role as "defenders of the [Catholic] people."

The IRA does not, of course, intend that the present truce with the Protestant paramilitaries should long endure. The IRA's goal is to replace conventional policing; once it has succeeded, it will move against the Protestant paramilitaries, taking on one set at a time. And the disciplined Provos will not be long in forcing their will on the undisciplined and demoralized Protestant hordes.

Then the IRA will have achieved its immediate objective: total control over the streets of Northern Ireland. And nothing will have helped it more in attaining that objective than the so-called peace process.

Policing is at the center of the whole debate over the peace process. Both the British and the IRA know that cross-community consent, hitherto central to the process, is now a lost cause, and that if the British are not careful, the vacuum may be filled by the resumption of IRA military operations. So why not buy off the IRA by sacrificing the Royal Ulster Constabulary? Or, rather, complete the sacrifice, because it is already in progress. More than 970 members of the RUC, including three assistant chief constables, twenty-five chief superintendents, thirty-seven chief inspectors, and a hundred inspectors, have left the force during the first half of this year.

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