By Danny Morrison
There are two crucial political questions at the moment in the North. What will be the IRA’s response to Gerry Adams’ appeal for it to stand down and for its activists to devote their energies to political struggle? And, what is the DUP’s true position on a power-sharing deal with Sinn Féin?
Last Christmas the DUP balked at the unprecedented offer then made by the IRA leadership - without consultation with its Volunteers - to verifiably put all of its arms beyond use. For a short while it seemed as if Paisley and the DUP were going to take most of the blame for the impasse. But within a short time republicans were being urged to do ‘more’ (that is, agree to decommissioning being photographed) whilst the DUP were merely chided for turning down a historic offer.
Republicans felt that the pressure should have been on the DUP and were angry at London and Dublin for retrospectively conferring any validity on Paisley’s ‘sackcloth and ashes’ approach.
Despite peace, every protagonist here is still fighting the old wars through the political process. Because opponents shake hands doesn’t make them bosom pals. Bertie Ahern, in particular, needs to keep Sinn Féin in check in the South, by limiting its prestige nationally and exploiting the party’s difficulties. And Tony Blair represents a state which was antipathetic to the Irish long before the IRA relentlessly attacked it. He is from a tradition of my country right-or-wrong - which explains why he will not even cooperate with his ally, Bertie, on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.
Certainly, Blair and Ahern do not want the IRA to return to armed struggle and do not want to be perceived to be the cause of a split that might see a rump of the IRA return to conflict, even if that were disastrous for the cause of republicanism. But the political establishment want to keep the Sinn Féin leadership under pressure, reeling, embarrassed, angry and frustrated. They love the idea of being tough and putting manners on Sinn Féin. Thus, Bertie Ahern’s riposte to an angry Gerry Adams’ denial of republican involvement in money laundering: “ What kind of eejits do people take us for.”
This is the price Sinn Féin has to pay for being the driving force for major change when the rest of its disparate opponents would prefer various degrees of minimal change, if it all. But it is also the price the party has to be pay for the question mark over IRA intentions.
Republicans are always going to be viewed as the real enemy. How can it be otherwise, given their relentless pursuit of their objectives and their high aspirations?
Immediately after the Northern Bank raid, and before the repercussions of the McCartney murder (and the major mishandling of this local incident), the remaining limited pressure on the DUP vanished and Sinn Féin was roasted on a hot spit for five long months.
Sinn Féin’s vote in the Westminster elections still proved remarkably resilient but had it not been for the Northern Bank raid and the McCartney murder the party’s vote would have been more substantial. Foyle just might have been taken and the SDLP lead over Sinn Féin in South Down would have been narrowed beyond dispute.
Instead, the SDLP has been reinvigorated for a while by limited successes - but successes nonetheless, which actually mask a party still in decline. The negative impact of the SDLP’s election results is that Blair and the DUP will waste time thinking there is an option available of co-opting Mark Durkan into a power-sharing arrangement to the exclusion of Sinn Féin. Durkan has repeatedly repudiated that as an option but with people in the party such as Alasdair McDonnell and Eddie McGrady who supported the idea just months ago Blair and the DUP are likely to give up later rather than sooner.
One repercussion of this is that the DUP will resist to the end answering Gerry Adams’ challenge to engage in dialogue. Indeed, because of its inherently sectarian nature, the DUP might remain intransigent even if the IRA responds to Gerry Adams in a way that turns the tables on the DUP, including the two governments putting pressure on it. That is a real possibility which will influence the internal debate requested by Gerry Adams.
It doesn’t matter that the IRA has already put weapons beyond use on three separate occasions - acts witnessed by international observers . However unfairly, Sinn Féin was always going to pay the price for the IRA’s past and present and the question over its future. The ceasefire is arguably a staging post in the unified and disciplined demobilisation of the IRA. But republican opponents have successfully presented it as the very opposite - a position from which the IRA carries out limited but significant activities and consolidates its ability to return to war.
The IRA has existed, in one mode or another, throughout the existence of the northern state, a state to which nationalists could never feel a part of, except as vanquished subjects. The IRA existed to defend nationalists against the forces of the state and to make a stand against the state as part of the struggle to overthrow the state, break the British connection and reunite Ireland.
The largest popular support for the IRA came in the 1970s and was directly fuelled by violent unionist opposition to the civil rights movement and its demand for equality. With the introduction of the British army in support of the unionist status quo and the intensification of military repression the conflict shot to an unprecedented level.
Given the repeated outbreaks of conflict throughout the history of the northern state is it safe for the IRA to completely go away? When all is debated and discussed that might be the most crucial question republicans have to answer. Would the nationalist community feel safer, be safer, if their sons and daughters made up half of the PSNI; and, as insurance, if their party of choice in the North, Sinn Féin, was also a party or potential party of government in the South?
What is in a deal for unionists? Access to real, though shared, power and, clearly, the hope that by fully participating in the North nationalist fervour for reunification would be dulled or neutered. For nationalists it is the power to really change society and the hope that peace and stability in the North would relax unionists and allow them to view Ireland as their home.
All life is a gamble.
To me, the IRA has fulfilled its role in line with the cards it has been dealt. Many former activists joined Sinn Féin and brought to that party immense energy and talent. It only remains for the process to be completed and republicans, in my opinion, will triumph.