This week in terrorism history: Feb. 17-23

Dueling Republican grafitti, Lurgan, Northern Ireland, 2009 (Credit: Peter Moloney)

Last week, voters in a member country of the European Union handed an electoral victory to a political party that is, according to police and state security services, under the “oversight” of an armed wing.

I am referring, of course, to Sinn Fein’s success in winning the popular vote in last week’s general elections in the Republic of Ireland and the party’s continuing connections with the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

While the Provos have been on ceasefire for more than two decades, declaring a formal end to their armed campaign in 2005, they never formally disbanded. Or, as Bobby Storey, former IRA chief of intelligence reminded a crowd in 2014, “We haven’t gone away, you know.”

In October 2015, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and MI5, the British state security service, were compelled to publicly acknowledge that while the Provisional IRA had dismantled its “combat” capabilities in 2005 and ended recruiting and weapons procurement, it had been allowed to retain its senior leadership structures, including the Army Council and regional commands, intelligence gathering, and internal security departments. It also retained access to weapons.

In fact, as I wrote here and again here on the blog back in 2015, the continued existence of the Provisional IRA has been integral to the success of the Northern Ireland peace process. I go into considerable detail on this in “The Movement Moves Against You,” an article I published in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence. It first appeared online in 2016 and then in print in 2018. I explained it this way on the blog in 2017:

While command, intelligence, and internal security structures were allowed to remain mostly intact after 2005, as British security services were compelled to acknowledge in 2015, what armed capability the PIRA retained in the years since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has been largely used to cow – and occasionally quiet – opposition to the political direction taken by Adams and the leadership of Provisional Republican Movement.

That 2015 PSNI/MI5 assessment also said something especially relevant today about the intimate connection between the PIRA and Sinn Fein:

PIRA members believe that the PAC (Provisional Army Council) oversees both PIRA and Sinn Fein with an overarching strategy. We judge this strategy has a wholly political focus.

To be completely clear. According to British and Northern Irish security services, Sinn Fein, the political party, is overseen by the senior leadership of a terrorist group, the Provisional IRA. That leadership retains control over what remains of its armed capability.

And lest you think this is all in the past … Three days ago, the new Chief Constable of the PSNI dodged lawmakers’ questions about the status of the PIRA, instead directing those questions to his political masters in the Northern Ireland Office. But in November, PSNI spokesmen had this to say to the Belfast News Letter:

Four months ago the PSNI told this paper there had been “no change” since the 2015 government assessment; Prompted by the murder of Kevin McGuigan, the 2015 report said that the PIRA Army Council was still overseeing both Sinn Fein and the remaining structures of the terror organisation with an “over arching strategy”.

“With regards to PIRA, there has been no change since the Paramilitary Assessment in 2015,” the PSNI told the News Letter in November.

The government report, published in 2015 and based in part on PSNI assessments, concluded that the second largest political party in both Northern Ireland and – now the Republic of Ireland also – continues to be overseen by the deadliest terror group of the Troubles, which although much reduced in scale and “committed to the peace process”, still has “specific” departments and “regional command structures”, gathers intelligence, retains weapons and has been involved in “isolated incidents of violence, including murders”.

Now on to this week’s look back at terrorism history.

  • Feb, 17, 2004 — Belfast, Northern Ireland: Three members of the Ulster Defense Association are shot by British soldiers. One is killed immediately, another dying several days later.
  • Feb. 18, 2002 — Israel: An Israeli police officer is killed in a suicide bombing. The al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claims responsibility.
  • Feb. 20, 1998 — Japan: Japanese Red Army member Tsutomu Shirosaki is sentenced to 30 years in prison for an attack on the U.S. embassy in Indonesia.
  • Feb. 21, 1999 — Northern Ireland and Ireland: Seven people are arrested in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in connection with the August 1998 Omagh bombing. That car bomb attack, attributed to the Real Irish Republican Army, which had broken away from the Provisional IRA a year earlier, killed 29 people and wounded more than 200.
  • Feb. 21, 2004 — Northern Uganda: The Lord’s Resistance Army carries out an attack on a refugee camp. More than 230 are killed and another 40 wounded.
  • Feb. 23, 1998 — Worldwide: Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda issue a fatwa, or religious decree, calling for the killing of Americans wherever they are found.

Brexit renewed for another season!

(Credit: Telegraph)
(Credit: Telegraph)

 

About that last minute reprieve I alluded to in my post the other day …

BRUSSELS — With less than 48 hours before Britain’s scheduled departure, the European Union extended the exit deadline early Thursday until the end of October, avoiding a devastating cliff-edge divorce but settling none of the issues that have plunged British politics into chaos, dysfunction and recrimination.

Fittingly, the new deadline for Britain to get out of the EU is October 31, Halloween. As the BBC put it this morning, that’s both a trick and a treat.

The treat is that the UK gets to postpone the disastrous no-deal crash out that tomorrow would have brought. The trick is that the delay solves nothing, and has the counterproductive effect of taking the immediate pressure off the British parliament to find a way out of the European Union that they can actually agree to.

The dynamic is reminiscent of the caution that negotiation and conflict resolution scholar I. William Zartman makes about the downside of ceasefires in a stalemated civil war. The upside of a ceasefire, Zartman acknowledges, is that the killing stops, at least temporarily. The downside, though, is that a ceasefire allows both sides to become comfortable with the stalemate and gives them no incentive to negotiate an actual end to the war.

Sometimes, Zartman suggests, it’s better to let the parties race up to and even across the precipice of disaster so that the resulting pain forces a resolution once and for all. A no-deal Brexit would be painful indeed, but perhaps necessary for the UK to snap to its senses.

Because frankly, given their inability to figure this out over the last almost three years of deliberation and negotiation, there’s little to suggest that more time will produce much beyond more dithering and dysfunction.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has been reporting on the very same thorny issues of Brexit, identity, and conflict in Northern Ireland that my colleague and I are exploring in our research. Give a watch.

Punks against the Troubles

Image: Ricky Adams/mediadrumworld.com
Image: Ricky Adam/mediadrumworld.com

 

On one of my first research trips to Belfast, back in 2010, I was in a conversation with a fellow about my own age (at the time mid-40s) and the topic turned, as it often does in these circumstances, to what it was like growing up in a place being torn apart by brutal civil violence.

As a working class teenager in the early 1980s living in North Belfast, he was of an age and from a place in which it would have been all too easy to get drawn into the turmoil of the times, winding up with a gun in his hand, probably landing in jail, maybe ending up dead. So I asked him how he managed to stay out of things.

“Simple,” he said, “I was a punk.”

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2The punks stood apart.

I was reminded of this conversation today when I came across a set of photos taken in one of Belfast’s storied punk venues, a community center called, fittingly, the “Warzone Centre.”  The photos are from a recently published book by photographer Ricky Adams, Belfast Punk, which captures the era as it was drawing to a close.

The Guardian last month posted images from the book, with the photographer giving some commentary and context on each of the shots. In his review of Belfast Punk, writer Mark McConville emphasizes punk culture as a unifying force in a divided city and society:

PUNK is most often associated with anarchy but rare pictures have revealed unifying power of punk culture to bring together those from both sides of the conflict during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Rather than attempted to destroy society as the 1980s anarchists are usually portrayed, stunning images show Catholic and Protestant punks overcoming the problems of their community by mixing amicably and enjoying themselves at a Belfast youth and community centre, appropriately called “the Warzone Centre”.

In a long essay published by the Irish Times last December, Timothy Heron described Northern Ireland’s punk music culture as a nonsectarian common ground that allowed Protestant and Catholic youth to reject the violence and repression that surrounded them:

It is that ‘‘other nation” of ordinary individuals struggling to cope with the pressures of life which is the focus of this paper, or, more accurately, the ordinary youths, many of them school-age teenagers, who took part in an extraordinary musical subculture which helped them construct their everyday lives in the midst of the Troubles in ways which would conflict with and sometimes subvert the codes of the society they lived in: punk.

It is worth remembering that even under the worst conditions, people can often find ways to push back against the circumstances that might otherwise crush their spirits if not their lives.

The video below, for the Stiff Little Fingers (a legendary Belfast punk band formed in 1977 at the height of the Troubles) song “Alternative Ulster,” gives you an idea of what they and the other punks were rebelling against.

A border, seen or unseen

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PVCP_near_NewryThe first time I crossed the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic it was the summer of 1992, and it looked exactly like these pictures, taken at roughly the same time and in the same place, along the M1 motorway that connects Belfast and Dublin.

My wife and I were there on holiday, and we had decided to take a swing through the border counties of Northern Ireland en route from Connemara and the Aran Islands to Dublin.

Crossing into the north in our little rented Nissan Micra was a simple proposition. The border station near Belcoo, between Sligo and Enniskillen, was deserted. The booths were empty, the gates raised. Not a soldier nor customs agent was in sight.

Given that earlier experience, the British Army checkpoint on the M1 came as a shock of sandbags, soldiers, and machine guns.

The last time I crossed that border, this time by bus, was a year ago and the only indication that I had passed out of one country and into another was the change in carrier on my cellphone.

I will be back there again at the end of this week, this time traveling with my son, who will turn 18 on the overnight flight across the Atlantic. He’ll be the same age as many of those British soldiers who trained their guns on us as we crossed the border back in 1992, and likely the same age as some of the IRA volunteers who blew that checkpoint up with a 2,200 lb. bomb in May of the same year.

When we cross the border on our way to Belfast, it could very well be one of the last times that the border will still exist in essentially name only. With Britain voting to leave the European Union, of which the Republic of Ireland will remain a member, the reimposing of a hardened border may well be one of the most visible signs of the new Brexit reality.

If the United Kingdom really wants to reestablish strict border control, which was the emotional heart of the case for pulling out of the EU, then the UK will have no other choice than to restrict the Northern Irish border lest the unrestricted migration within the EU spill into the UK through this obvious back door.

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has declined to back a special arrangement suggested by the Irish government that would allow the soft border with Northern Ireland to stay as is should Britain follow through with Brexit.

It won’t happen over night, but assuming Britain invokes Article 50 of the EU treaty and begins the formal process of withdrawal, the border as it stands today will be fundamentally changed, and gone with it will be many of the other unseen structures and dynamics that have contributed to the almost 20 years of peace bought by the Good Friday Agreement.

Should this happen the unseen border will once again be seen, with all that connotes. Perhaps it won’t feature as many soldiers, sandbags, or machine guns, but it certainly won’t be the invisible reality of today, marked only by a notification on your cellphone.