The leaked story in today’s Sunday Telegraph reporting the British police’s intention to pursue six IRA activists who had been given so-called ‘comfort letters’ by the Blair government is another indication that the British are determined to continue waging war against the IRA despite the peace process and the reality that the Provisional movement has effectively accepted British rule in Northern Ireland.
This, along with the Cameron government’s expressed intention not to stand over the Blair letters to the so-called ‘On The Run’s’ or OTR’s – IRA suspects given promises of non-prosecution – and the pursuit of Ivor Bell, who will learn in a fortnight whether he will face charges in connection with the disappearance of Jean McConville, amount to a British default both from the spirit of the peace process and the commitments given during good faith negotiations with Sinn Fein and the IRA.
That the British intention to continue to pursue IRA suspects, try them in the courts and then imprison them amounts to an act of war against the IRA is undeniable in the context of the conflict since 1969.
Whereas the IRA’s campaign was characterised in the main by the shooting and bombing of British targets, the British response in the main took the form of trying to put as many IRA members as they could behind bars, using the police and the courts to do so (while the British also shot and killed many IRA members the greater part of their energies was spent trying to imprison them).
The fact that the IRA has completely abandoned violence against the British, has stopped shooting or bombing them and furthermore co-operated in the destruction of its arsenals while the British now trumpet their resolve to keep putting former IRA activists behind bars whenever they can, highlights an unspoken and unacknowledged reality: the IRA has ended its war against the British but the British have not ended their war against the IRA.
This would be completely uncontroversial had the Troubles in Northern Ireland ended in any way other than by a series of negotiated accords with each side making and giving concessions and no side claiming victory over the other.
This latter commitment was the defining principle of the peace process, the oil that greased the wheels: no-one came out and said ‘We Won!’ and by not doing so this enabled the already difficult process of making and demanding concessions to happen.
Implicitly and in an unspoken way, at least in public, the Troubles ended in a draw with every participant agreeing on ways of enabling each other to withdraw from the field of battle. It wasn’t easy and it took a long time to happen but without that agreement it probably never would have.
The fact that the British, or to be precise the Cameron government, are now flouting this principle amounts to a declaration of victory over the IRA and a hollowing out of the core of the peace process.
Had the Provos done something similar, for instance by announcing that the IRA was back in the business of acquiring weapons, how loud would be the cries of anger from London? And from Dublin? How grave would the resulting crisis be for the peace process? How quickly would Unionists have withdrawn from the GFA institutions?
But the Provos haven’t, and they won’t. And nor have they raised as much as a squeak in protest, at least in public, even though one very real consequence could be the abandoning of former comrades to jail time (except when their leader was briefly threatened with the same fate and that protest was quickly put down).
And ultimately it is this silence from Sinn Fein that is making it possible for the British to behave in this way. And by staying silent Sinn Fein is also admitting that the British are right; they won and to the victors go the spoils, including the right to put former adversaries behind bars, peace process or no peace process.