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.

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.

One compromise with Republican orthodoxy Sinn Fein won’t make

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In a long interview with the Belfast Telegraph, Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, former IRA chief of staff and one of the stalwarts of Sinn Fein’s peace strategy, stood firm on one of the few pillars of traditional Republican orthodoxy still standing.

Asked if Sinn Fein would take its seats at Westminster in the event that a friendly Labour government needed its support in parliament, McGuinness was adamant:

No. Our position has been on the record for many decades and I don’t envisage any change whatsoever; there is no mood for it within the party. Quite apart from the principle involved it could damage the cohesion of mainstream republicanism. I think that is not something that a leadership that has been very precious about cohesiveness would contemplate.

He denied that this position was underpinned by fear of a backlash from Sinn Fein supporters who up until now have gone along with every compromise the party’s leadership has made, from declaring a permanent end to the armed campaign, standing down the IRA, decommissioning weapons, to recognizing the legitimacy of the PSNI, taking seats in the partitionist institutions of Stormont and Leinster House, and administering British rule as partners in government with the DUP.

That is not the reason. The reason is that we have a principled republican position. Politicians are criticised left, right and centre for not having principled positions but on this matter we don’t see any advantage in change either. The negotiations that I have been involved in with successive British Prime Ministers over the the last 20-odd years have borne more fruit than me being the MP for Mid Ulster. I had more access than many Labour and Conservative backbenchers had.

So that settles it then. This is the one Republican principle left on which the party stands firm. Until it doesn’t.

And that time will come, as McGuinness unwittingly acknowledged, when the party’s leaders no longer see any advantage in leaving the last pillar of Republican orthodoxy standing.

 

 

What reconciliation is, and isn’t

 

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In the midst of the controversy surrounding the historic meeting and handshake between Prince Charles and Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams last week, I reached out to one of my Belfast friends, a steadfast supporter of Adams and the party he has led since 1986, to get his take on what, if anything, it all meant.

My friend has long argued to me the virtues of Sinn Fein’s “long game” of transition from armed struggle to “ordinary” politics as the surest path to achieving a united Ireland. A key part of this long game requires that the party not stay shackled to a past in which violence and bloodshed was the currency of both revolution and state reaction.

My friend wrote:

We can’t strangulate ourselves with the past, while I couldn’t shake his hand, I understood why Gerry accepted his handshake. A new Ireland will only be achieved when we take big steps, such as this.

And he’s right. Reconciliation with the past, and with past foes, requires a willingness to take risks, even if those risks are today less immediate than they might have been twenty years ago. Reconciliation requires, as my friend pointed out, an acknowledgment of the suffering inflicted by and upon all sides of an armed conflict. This was, apparently, among the things that Adams and Charles discussed during a short private meeting.

Adams himself, in an interview with BBC Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster program, placed his meeting with Prince Charles squarely in the reconciliation column. You can read a full transcript of the interview here, but this is the money quote:

… we, I think, had a common view that there should be no hierarchy [of victims] and that thankfully, the conflict’s over. But all of those victims and survivors of the conflict who still seek justice need to have that justice. And if our meeting yesterday did anything I would like to think it assisted this process. And the governments and the political parties, I think, are duty-bound to build upon that because reconciliation is — it’s a personal process, I suppose, of dialogue and engagement and compromise and getting to know someone.

Sinn Fein’s critics, both north and south of the Irish border, and Republican dissidents have sung from their familiar hymnals, challenging the sincerity of Adams’ meeting with the heir to the British throne and characterizing it variously as cynical political posturing, a hypocritical about face on whether the Royal Family is welcome in Ireland, and yet another in a seemingly infinite line of betrayals and subversions of traditional Republicanism.

But there’s another criticism worth thinking about, and it gets to the heart of what reconciliation is, and what it isn’t. Adams himself alludes to it. Reconciliation is indeed personal, but it will not come about if it amounts to no more than occasional symbolic meetings between high-profile public figures. As Eamonn McCann writes in the pages of the Belfast Telegraph:

We do not have to hold the royals in high regard to make peace with our neighbours. Most of us have never been at war with them in the first place. The consolidation of peace can only be achieved by plain people making common cause across national and religious divides. That is to say, on the basis of proclaiming that it’s the people who must be sovereign.

There have been plenty of handshakes in recent years, but the hard work of actual reconciliation in Northern Ireland will be the work of generations. Some of this is taking place, both on individual and private levels and on officially supported and institutional ones, but the pace of progress can seem glacial in a place where people more readily see their differences than their similarities.

In short, symbolic gestures notwithstanding, there’s still a long way to go.