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.

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.