The IRA packs up its troubles

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There have been at least three major cease-fires in Northern Ireland's contemporary history, and that's not counting the Irish Republican Army's annual Christmas and Easter breaks, so it was easy for the world to miss the meaning of the IRA's July 28 announcement that it was, essentially, going out of business.

The Troubles have been background noise for so long in the English-speaking world that nobody noticed the irony that the IRA, in addition to its usual written announcement, also put the thing out on DVD, with a former republican prisoner reading the order for all units to dump their arms and cease any activity.

When the Troubles began in 1969, cassette tapes were just coming on the market. Now, anyone with Internet access could download Seanna Walsh advising the world that, "All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever."

That "any other activities" might be the most important three words in the statement. The IRA had always been quick to punish members who diverted any of the money it raised through the ownership of pubs, the operation of a taxi cab cooperative and the millions it pulled out of protection and extortion rackets in Belfast, London and beyond. The IRA didn't get its money conventionally, but its auditors happened to carry sidearms and any member foolish enough to dip a hand in a till devoted exclusively to the armed struggle could count on a bullet through the knee or worse.

Without an ongoing armed struggle to give meaning to the lives of men who otherwise had no way to rise in the world, the IRA was at risk of turning into a Gaelic Mafia, and the proximity of that degeneration was born out in two cases.

In December, the IRA was blamed for a $50 million bank robbery in Belfast. The audacious stunt came as all sides in the Northern Ireland conflict were working to hammer out a deal by which the IRA would hand over its arms and hardline pro-British leaders would give Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, a seat in a power-sharing regional government. The bank robbery seemed to take Sinn Fein leaders by surprise. A month later, IRA members knifed to death a Catholic man, Robert McCartney, in a fight outside a Belfast pub. As McCartney's family called for justice, the IRA offered to shoot the men suspected in the knifing, deepening fears that, absent the discipline of a war, the group was evolving into a common crime syndicate.

In elections to the regional assembly set up as part of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Fein had emerged as the largest party representing the nationalist community -- the Catholics of Northern Ireland who would like to unite the six-county province with the adjoining Republic of Ireland. Suddenly saddled with the legitimacy of a Catholic majority, Sinn Fein needed to erase any doubts about its commitment to the democratic process.

"The IRA were of no benefit to the political or peace strategy. The logic was there in December," said Mairtin O'Muilleoir, a longtime Sinn Fein activist and onetime Belfast City council member.

O'Muilleoir saw the decision to disarm as the IRA, "giving voice to a reality. The reality is that the war is over."

That war killed 3,700 people. About 1,800 of them died at the hands of IRA troops, while a combination of British Army and police shootings and a particularly vicious terror campaign by pro-British Loyalist gangs added the balance. The war stretched across generations and at times boiled as a low-grade exchange of random killings that, in some years, claimed fewer victims in the six-county province than did automobile accidents. In that atmosphere, it was fairly easy for paramilitary squads on each side of the Catholic-Protestant divide to become neighborhood institutions that wavered somewhere between formal army and street gang.

In neighborhoods where residents were loath to call the police, it was common for local IRA units to assign young recruits to carry out a punishment beating on local hooligans suspected of shoplifting, purse-snatching or stealing cars.

A strange symbiosis arose between IRA units and their enemies on the Loyalist side, the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. Turf was marked out according to the religion of a neighborhood and each side focused its business dealings -- which often consisted of extorting protection money from local bars -- on its own turf. Loyalist leaders quickly gained a reputation for corruption, skimming the proceeds ostensibly taken to fund their armies. In 1988 UDA leader, John McMichael, was set up for murder by his own side when he began to move against internal corruption.

For the IRA to risk becoming the mirror image of that seemed too much for its own community and, as it turns out, its members.

Previous IRA moves away from the armed struggle have caused splintering. The IRA that last month ended its armed struggle is also known as the Provisional IRA. It broke away from the original IRA in the mid-1970s. The original IRA in turn foreswore armed struggle and became The Workers Party. The same storefront office on Gardner Place in Dublin where Cathal Goulding and Sean MacStiofan held press conferences on behalf of the IRA turned into the headquarters of an ineffectual Marxist-oriented party that, in turn, splintered into others.

When the provisionals called their own cease-fire in the mid-1990s, their quartermaster, Michael McKevitt, brother-in-law of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, walked off with his group and formed the quizzically named "Real IRA."

This time, the leadership wanted no doubt that its members would follow.

"It was a matter of getting their organization on board," said Alex Maskey, a former IRA prisoner and a ranking member of the Sinn Fein leadership. "We saw too many examples in Irish history where these things can crash around you."


Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist, droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965.


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