Mo Mowlam was right - in the round, it is better to talk than pick up bodies
Published 05/09/2015 | 02:30
I was abroad when the furore started about the continuing existence of the IRA and its alleged involvement in the recent murders of Kevin McGuigan and Jock Davison.
So I watched from afar as the familiar players pitched in, some posturing, but most in earnest efforts to pick their way through the latest questions of credibility and Sinn Féin's fitness for office.
We have all been here before so many times that it can appear tedious to be overly precious about decoupling Sinn Féin from its murky paramilitary connections. The Republican movement's transition to democracy has not been a seamless join. Anyone involved in the 20-year peace process has regularly wrestled with these conflicting demons. In the pre-1998 talks it was all about what constituted a ceasefire. Did it have to be permanent? What constituted decommissioning? Verifiable public handing over of weapons or euphemisms such as putting arms beyond use? In the end, the really thorny issue of the destruction and monitoring of paramilitary weapons was handed over to independent bodies like the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and later the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). The latter was established by the two governments in 2004 and concluded in 2011, having issued 22 reports on paramilitary activity.
From the very beginning, the engagement with Sinn Féin in talks was a high-risk strategy for sovereign governments. Many doubted the bona fides of Sinn Féin. Frequently, a delusional mind-set was required in a process which was full of holes, wishful thinking, disappointments and false dawns. Many of us had to suspend our critical faculties for the greater good of peace. To use the late Mo Mowlam's expression, "in the round", it was better to be talking than picking up bodies. It was pure political pragmatism.
Throughout, the Irish Government, blessed by a cross-party consensus, enjoyed a wide political licence to do the business. There was an acceptance across the parties that the peace process was neither principled nor elegant. We were, after all, not only seeking agreement on a new political settlement between the UK and Ireland in relation to the North. We were down and dirty in conflict resolution. Lack of progress on the latter inevitably stalled progress on the former. In addition, we knew we were negotiating with unsavoury people outside the room in the form of paramilitaries on both sides.
But it was the best opportunity in decades to bury the hatchet in the old quarrel between our two countries and bring an end to paramilitary killings. The two governments were in it together, cajoling, persuading, and conceding, all the while trying to keep everyone in the room, even when clearly there were ambiguities and ambivalence from the Sinn Féin negotiators. David Trimble, then beleaguered leader of the UUP, was being vilified by the DUP just for participation in the talks, let alone signing up to any agreement which meant Sinn Féin in government. Ultimately, the commitment on decommissioning in 1998 was so weak that Tony Blair gave Trimble a letter of comfort that unless weapons were indeed given up definitively, there was no place in government for Sinn Féin. As we later learned, "on the runs" also got letters of comfort about future prosecutions.
And so the pragmatism continued, month by month thereafter for years, trying to keep the show on the road, implementing the Agreement and establishing the institutions, despite inaction on weapons decommissioning. It was that delay and erosion of trust that paved the way for the DUP to gain power. So, the UUP has cause to be embittered at the way things have worked out. They were the moderate unionists who compromised to make peace with Sinn Féin, only to be punished by the electorate. But walking out of the Executive looks like posturing now.
Most people accept that the IRA as an organisation is no longer on a war footing. That was the best that could be achieved - according to former Justice Minister Michael McDowell, "abolition of the IRA was not on the cards". Mr McDowell, not known for being soft on the 'provos', who was Minister for Justice in 2005, recently stated that a political "calculus" was made by the governments that "an inert freeze- dried husk of the IRA was preferable to passing the ideological torch to dissidents". An imperfect outcome but, one assumes, based on good security intelligence in 2005. However, this was never articulated in public by either government. Most of us assumed, perhaps naively, that the IRA had indeed left the stage/been disbanded. Gerry Adams's recent assertion that the IRA "had gone away" was accompanied pointedly with a remark that they were "undefeated". This constant pandering to the paramilitary republican myth is an unsettling indication of an unchanged mind-set on his part.
Like it or not, politics is working for republicans and Sinn Féin. Their stamina and massive financial resources are primarily focused on winning seats and power. Does it matter if senior republicans are riding a few horses in the criminal world and have access to high-powered weapons and a command structure? I think it matters a great deal. While accepting PSNI and Garda assessments that the IRA is no longer on a "war footing", I would favour the reconvening of the IMC to give a clear-headed, independent and contemporary assessment of paramilitary groups. This may be an outcome of the talks, among other things.
Is it really too much to expect that after two decades of peace and politics and Sinn Féin in government, that the IRA should no longer exist? I think not. I'm sure Senator George Mitchell did not contemplate that the "normal politics" he envisaged for Northern Ireland would include tolerance of a major paramilitary organisation, however "inert", co-existing with Sinn Féin in government. As for Mary Lou McDonald's plea that Sinn Féin is not responsible for solving crime, when it comes to crimes allegedly committed by "senior republicans", they cannot just whistle and look away. As a party of government in the North, their first loyalty and duty is to the state and justice system. Thankfully, Martin McGuinness was less equivocal. His trenchant condemnation of such killings will be helpful to the future of the Executive and to Peter Robinson if he is to avoid the political fate of David Trimble.