Belfast December 2001

Police Powers

How the IRA leverages the peace process

Ken Maginnis, a former Ulster Unionist spokesman on security, has commented on the impact of the supposed reforms: "The problems come not just in the levels of policing but in the experience. There are not many experienced officers left, the type of policeman that is needed to tackle organized crime."

Sinn Fein and the IRA know that more progress of this kind is under way. The British and Irish governments have announced a package of policing "reforms" in Northern Ireland, in the general direction of the "citizen policing" demanded by Sinn Fein. These proposals envisage indemnity against conviction for about sixty members of paramilitaries who are now on the run; making paramilitary organizations eligible to join local district-policing partnerships; and a program of "demilitarization." In other words, the British military presence in Northern Ireland will be phased out.

All that is quite satisfactory from the point of view of the Provos, but it does not go far enough for them. Full-fledged "citizen policing"—the control of Northern Ireland by paramilitary groups—is the IRA's ultimate aim. This to be accompanied by the withdrawal of the British military, followed by a full-scale political "Brits out."

The Provos are realistic enough to know that they can't expect to get all that right away. Nor is the IRA likely to resume "military operations" right away. It will, I believe, wait for the demoralizing effects of the "reforms" to work on what is left of the RUC. These effects will be felt in terms of the resignation or early retirement of zealous and efficient officers, while those remaining will likely opt for a quiet life by turning a blind eye to paramilitary activities, especially any of the IRA.

The IRA's resumption of military operations has in the past often been rewarded with renewed and enhanced appeasement by the British. But last time it met with stiff, successful resistance from an intact RUC. This time it would be dealing with a thoroughly demoralized force, betrayed by the British government.

It may well be that the IRA would benefit substantially from a renewed offensive, mounted with retained weapons, followed by a renewed ceasefire. If so, Northern Ireland will soon likely be a province governed by the Provisional IRA. But a renewed IRA offensive in London, after sustained British appeasement, might produce a reaction in Britain comparable to the reaction following the appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1938.

If such a reaction did set in, what form might it take?

Neither the RUC—its morale broken by the IRA—nor the courts, undermined by the IRA's ruthless and efficient terrorization of witnesses, could take any action against the IRA. Stopping the rot that has gone so far in Northern Ireland would require quasi-revolutionary measures. Martial law would have to be introduced. The jurisdiction of the ordinary courts, which now protect the terrorists, would have to be suspended. Internment without trial would have to be introduced and applied evenhandedly to suspected terrorists of all persuasions.

If these measures were supported by the mainland British public, they could work, as they did in the repression of suspected Nazi sympathizers during World War II. In characteristically tongue-in-cheek fashion Winston Churchill replied to those in Britain who appealed to international law and the concept of habeas corpus, "His Majesty's Government has suspended international law for the duration by Order in Council."

Such tough measures, resolutely applied over the necessary period of time, could have an effect. Above all, they could be used to either head off or speedily check resumed IRA attacks on mainland Britain. Appeasement can buy off such attacks only for a time. Efficient and sustained repression could stop them for good. And in that way the measures would fully justify themselves in the eyes of the British public.

All this is within the bounds of possibility, but it will never come into operation unless the IRA again has recourse to military operations. The breakthrough in October is not real, because the IRA has not permanently renounced violence. Policy planners should be preparing for military operations. There is every reason to suppose that countermeasures of the sort indicated above would succeed. In recent times the IRA actually has had no more than about 500 armed men at its disposal. Its strength has been in its political support, especially in America. That support is not now what it once was. President George Bush was already disposed to welcome, rather than discourage (as his predecessor tended to do), effective action by the British government against the terrorist conspiracy. The devastating terrorist attacks against the United States have surely steeled his resolve.

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