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.

Peter King shouldn’t talk about terrorism

U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) argued today, in the wake of a botched terror attack in the New York City subways, that President Trump’s immigration policies could prevent future attacks.

Funny, he never argued for restricting immigration in the name of combating terrorism back in the 1980s when he was an ardent supporter of the Irish Republican Army. Of course then he believed terrorism was a legitimate weapon in a struggle against foreign occupation …

“We must pledge ourselves to support those brave men and women who this very moment are carrying forth the struggle against British imperialism in the streets of Belfast and Derry,” Mr. King told a pro-I.R.A. rally on Long Island, where he was serving as Nassau County comptroller, in 1982. Three years later he declared, “If civilians are killed in an attack on a military installation, it is certainly regrettable, but I will not morally blame the I.R.A. for it.”

Peace process at risk from whom?

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Actually, the Provos pretty much have gone away.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams warned today that any coalition deal between Britain’s grievously wounded Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party would put the Northern Ireland peace process at risk.

Given that the Provisional Irish Republican Army, which Adams denies ever being part of despite all evidence to the contrary, has been on ceasefire for more than 20 years, to call this a hollow threat seems generous at best.

Or, as Adams frequent critic, former Republican prisoner and blanket man Thomas ‘Dixie’ Elliot, put it on Twitter:

Certainly there was a time when the kind of warning Adams gave carried real menace. But that was before 2005, when the Provos stood the vast majority of their activists down and dismantled the bulk of the operational capabilities that allowed them to prosecute their war against Britain and the Northern Irish statelet.

While command, intelligence, and internal security structures were allowed to be 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.¹

None of this is to say that a deal between the Tories and the DUP is a good thing for Northern Ireland in general or for the stability of the Six Counties in particular.  It’s just that the time is long past when Adams or any other leading figure in the Provisional Movement could credibly warn that  peace there is threatened if they don’t get their way.

This is not to say that the peace that has held for two decades is assured. There are any number of armed Republican dissident groups (sometimes derisively referred to as “alphabet soup” IRAs) fully capable of causing some degree of mayhem even if not on the horrific scale of the Troubles. And Loyalist paramilitaries like the Ulster Defense Association, while also on ceasefire, never went so far as the PIRA in dismantling their structures and remain active to this day, primarily menacing their own communities.

But it’s really hard to say what Adams is driving at in his warning. The Provisionals are not about go back to war, and Adams and his comrades neither speak for nor have influence over the armed groups that could.

So while Sinn Fein and its supporters have good reason to vigorously protest any arrangement that further empowers the DUP, they have little actual leverage to apply.  Claims of a threatened peace process hardly qualify anymore.

¹I go into some detail on this in research I published last summer in the journal Terrorism and Political Violence.

What the Provos can, and cannot, do

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Official acknowledgment that the Provisional IRA still exists, albeit in a form distinct from the years when it was engaged in armed conflict with the British state, has led to calls for the resurrection of an independent group, separate from the PSNI, to once again monitor Northern Ireland’s paramilitary ceasefires.

Alderdice
Alderdice

Lord John Alderdice, one of the four commissioners of the Independent Monitoring Commission, established in 2003 by agreement of the British and Irish governments to do just that in an effort to build trust and confidence between parties as the peace process moved forward, last week threw a bucket of cold water on the idea, telling the BBC that “the IMC was appropriate for the time and it worked but I don’t think it would be an appropriate thing to bring it back.”

I first interviewed Alderdice in early 2010 as part of the research that I have been doing on the maintenance and durability of the peace process. One of the issues I was interested in understanding was how the Provisional Movement had managed to bring so many of their volunteers along as the transition was made from armed struggle to constitutional politics.

What Alderdice argued to me helps put the recent revelations of the continuing existence of elements of the Provisional IRA into context. Keeping intact a command structure, he contended, was essential to keeping volunteers on side even as the military structures that had prosecuted the war were being wound down.

One of the observations we made was even when they’d got to the point of standing down the military operations and not recruiting, engineering had gone south and all these kinds of things, there still was a necessity – there was a little bit of debate about this when we said it – still was a necessity to keep a kind of Army Council and structures in place as you brought it down because that exercised what you’d call a degree of moral authority, to tell people to “stop it.”

And people stopped, not necessarily because they immediately thought somebody was coming into the back door but because there was that sense of authority.

Alderdice was essentially arguing two things:

First, that the Army Council carried sufficient authority that when they ordered volunteers to stand down from a military posture and transition from being members of an underground army into above-ground political workers, those orders could be expected to be obeyed.

Second, that the volunteers that made up the ranks of the Provisional Irish Republican Army were sufficiently disciplined that they would, on the whole, follow the orders passed down from their leadership. They followed orders not out of fear, but out of loyalty.

This squares with one of the points that Tony Catney made when I interviewed him in 2013:

In 35 years of armed struggle, the membership of the IRA never let the leadership down once. Anything that the leadership asked for they got. They might not have got it to the degree or as quickly as they wanted but they got it to the best of the ability of the volunteers within the IRA. What happened from 1994 onwards was a failure of leadership not a failure of the IRA. It was a failure of the people who made the decisions as opposed to the people who were prepared to honor their commitment to the liberation of Ireland and were quite prepared to do it in a different fashion.

The important point in this context is one that Catney did not make. The discipline within the ranks of the PIRA was powerful enough that when told to stand down, the overwhelming majority of volunteers did. Catney characterized that moment this way:

In August 2005, all volunteers were informed that they were to report in to the chair of their local branch of Sinn Fein, and all their future activity would be directed by Sinn Fein.

Some who disagreed with the decision simply walked away. A few, like Catney, became critics of the Provisional Movement and the political direction its leadership had taken it. And a smaller fraction subsequently threw in their lot with one or another of the armed dissident groups.

Crucially, what those armed dissidents haven’t done is go after the leaders that they accuse of betraying Republicanism. If the IRA had gone away, as so many chose to believe, why hadn’t the dissidents moved against those leaders whom they charge with  selling out the cause of Irish freedom in exchange for the Queen’s shilling?

I interviewed Alderdice a second time in 2011, and I asked him specifically about the relationship between the dissidents and the Provisional Movement:

These are people that fell out in a very, very bitter way with Adams and McGuinness. … What happened was they absolutely didn’t agree with Adams and McGuinness, and every time you came to a key moment when something was moving forward, these were the losers. And some of them dropped out, packed it in. Some of them dropped out and said, “Well, we’ll still be here when they’ve betrayed everything.”

He then made two points, that while at first glance appear contradictory, actually make a great deal of sense now given what we have learned about the current status of the PIRA. As much as the dissidents brand the leaders of the Provisional Movement traitors, Alderdice said:

They haven’t the guts to take the Provos on, because the Provos will put them to bed. And in fact, it is ironic. It is because the Provisional IRA is effectively over in a meaningful sense that these guys popped their heads up. Because otherwise they’d have got their heads cut off.

What Alderdice seemed to be arguing back in 2011 was that the PIRA retained enough military capability to defend itself were it to be challenged directly by the dissidents. What it had not given up, however, in standing down from its wartime footing, was an ability to prevent open challenges to its authority.

This, added to what we have learned after the last several weeks, seems to me to offer a compelling explanation for the current landscape of “alphabet soup” IRAs and their apparent unwillingness to move against a leadership whom they have branded the worst kinds of traitors.

The Provos can still “put them to bed” if they try it.