Monday 20 May 2019

McGuinness: 'We know the guns will have to be banjaxed'

Paul Bew traces the development of the IRA's thinking on the need to decommission

There is an important and neglected passage in Sean Duignan's One Spin on the Merry-go-Round. It is the clue to the dramatic decommissioning developments of the past week.

Duignan describes how in October 1994, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness met Albert Reynolds and Dick Spring in the then Taoiseach's office. "Afterwards, Dick Spring and the Taoiseach told me Martin McGuinness spoke frankly about the need to dispose of armaments. I took a note of what they quoted McGuinness as saying: 'We know the guns will have to be banjaxed."'

David Trimble also took note of this significant comment. He became convinced that the logic of Sinn Féin's position was not only an embrace of constitutional politics, but also decommissioning. But why has it taken seven years to happen?

We have to understand the Republican movement had an each-way bet. They had a substantial investment in the Agreement. They proved that after the first suspension when they offered arms inspections as a means of re-establishing devolution. But they also could see attractions in a scenario in which Trimble imploded and Unionists could be presented again as unregenerate bigots who did not want 'a Fenian about the place'.

Trimble's resignation as First Minister is of particular importance here. Effectively it was, in ways which have not fully been understood, an intervention in the Republican debate. It raised up a new political possibility: that the Agreement would fall but David Trimble would remain in control of the UUP. In such a context, the PR victory for republicanism would have been soured.

Trimble's strategy therefore was the sine qua non for the breakthrough. He had correctly calculated that Republicans would make this decisive break with their violent past and he afforded them both the space and the presure which enabled them to act. The new international anti-terrorist climate after September 11 has not, for example, forced ETA to change its ways. The local political context is vital.

That said, the Colombia fiasco further weakened the militant faction in the IRA and September 11 presented Sinn Féin with a threat to its whole American operation, an operation which is vital to the funding of the party's political ambitions north and south.

It is clear that there were those in Sinn Féin who felt, even after Weston Park, that there was room for one more negotiation one more round of concessions from London on demilitarisation and policing. But the leverage which underpinned such a strategy, the threat of a Canary Wharf II, disappeared on September 11.

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