Someone suggested to me that followers of this blog might be interested in reading two articles I wrote for The Irish Times on the continuing fallout from the Kevin McGuigan killing. One appeared last Saturday and the other today, Thursday.
Here they are. One is copied directly from the paper, the second is my unedited version sent to the paper on Wednesday (my ten free article limit having expired!) Hope you find them interesting:
Provisional IRA may have left stage, but not theatre
The year 2005 marked the end of the armed campaign but not the Provisional IRA
A mural in west Belfast from 2005, the year the IRA announced the ending of its armed campaign. Photograph: Paul McErlane/Getty Images
But the revelation will have come as no surprise to two leading actors in the peace process drama at the time, in the summer of 2005, when the IRA announced the end of its armed campaign against the British presence in Northern Ireland, the point at which many people assume the IRA ceased to exist.
One was the then minister for justice in Dublin, Michael McDowell, and the other was George Bush’s ambassador to the peace process, Mitchell Reiss.
They were involved in an extraordinary spat with the British prime minister, Tony Blair, and his Northern Ireland adviser and chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, over precisely this issue, namely the retention by the Provisional IRA of an armed capacity and, presumably, an organisation to wield it.
Reiss recalled the altercation in a stinging review of Powell’s peace process memoir, Great Hatred, Little Room: “In July 2005, the IRA had finally agreed to decommission all its weapons. At the last minute, [Gerry] Adams called No 10 to demand that some of the weapons not be destroyed so that the IRA could arm itself against possible attacks from dissident members. Unless this was allowed, he threatened, decommissioning would not proceed. The Blair government conceded, but wanted to check with Dublin. Irish Minister for Justice Michael McDowell refused to acquiesce in the backsliding, despite enormous pressure. Powell told Adams of the problem, and Adams gave way. Decommissioning took place as planned.”
So we know that the Sinn Féin leadership wished to retain the ability to inflict and threaten violence and we know also that at least some in the British political establishment were amenable. We do not know for certain, but must assume that Blair and Powell consulted the security service, MI5 before agreeing to Adams’s demand and that they secured acquiescence at least from that quarter.
So important elements in the British system were favourably disposed to the view that the Provisionals needed to defend themselves against possible aggression from political opponents and, if there was a matter-of-fact quality to Det Supt Geddes’s acknowledgment that the IRA had not gone away, it can only sustain the suspicion that this has been an open secret in the security world for a long time, that notwithstanding the qualms of Dublin and Washington, new weapons were acquired from elsewhere and a blind eye subsequently turned to the whole business.
Indeed the circumstances of the Kevin McGuigan killing were a textbook example of the sort of fears expressed by Adams to Tony Blair a decade ago. In May, a leading Provisional activist, Gerard “Jock” Davison, was gunned down near Belfast city centre. Very quickly a former comrade with whom he had quarrelled was blamed and a week or so ago he was killed. To what extent were the killers, and those who ordered them, motivated by the fear that failure to retaliate would be seen as weakness and could invite further attacks against even more high-profile targets?
The need to defend its leaders and members is not the only reason an armed IRA survives. The IRA is enormously wealthy and continues to raise money in unorthodox and dubious ways. Some years ago, admittedly before the 2008 crash, its property portfolio alone – homes and businesses in Ireland, Europe, the US and even the Caribbean – was estimated by the Garda Special Branch to be worth over €200 million.
Someone needs to own, protect and administer all that wealth. Someone needs to provide protection to those who raise money in other ways. Money creates the need. What follows are guns and organisation. But there can be little doubt that fear of bloody feuding, a seemingly inevitable consequence of republican political shifts in the past, was the main factor in the Provisionals’ decision to retain an armed wing. The remarkable aspect of the last 20 years or so of the peace process is that despite a deep personal and ideological split with the Real IRA in 1997 and numerous splinters since, there has been so little internecine bloodshed.
Compare that to the carnage that followed the Official IRA-Provisional IRA, or Official IRA-INLA splits and the peace process can be seen as an astonishingly calm affair. The Provisional-Real IRA split was, by comparison, almost a civilised transaction, negotiated in a businesslike way with no side taking too hard a line for fear of the consequences. Would it have been different had the Provisionals disarmed and disbanded? Most probably.
To be fair to the Provisional IRA, the organisation itself has never said that it has disbanded and the most that Sinn Féin figures will concede is that, as Gerry Kelly put it on Thursday, “The IRA has left the stage.” The stage perhaps, but not the theatre. The assumption that the IRA went away when it made its July 2005 announcement ending the armed campaign against the British is due almost entirely to an over-reading of the statement mixed with a large dollop of wishful thinking.
Nowhere in that statement did “P O’Neill” say that the IRA was disbanding. The precise words were: “All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All Volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever.”
In a crucial sense this was no different from the statement which heralded the end of the 1956-62 campaign: the IRA is stopping its war, will begin doing other things but is not going away. Subsequent new year and Easter statements refer variously to “the commitment and discipline of IRA Volunteers”. The IRA did not go away, not entirely. But for a lot of people it was comforting to believe that it had.
Ed Moloney is author of A Secret History of the IRA
The Irish Times headline on this piece was:
IRA has sharpened claws in absence of monitoring commission
Either IRA has got new weapons or it was not truthful on decommissioning
In the course of his informative essay in this newspaper yesterday, describing why the Irish, British and US governments agreed back in 2005 that the survival of an “unarmed and withering husk” of an IRA was vital for the good of the peace process, former Justice Minister Michael McDowell gave a clue as to why things have now gone so badly wrong.
“Sinn Fein pressed for the abolition of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC)”, he wrote. “Its abolition leaves us back where we were prior to its creation: dependant on the police forces and their ministers for an assessment of the existence of and responsibility for paramilitary crime.”
The IMC was set up in 2004 and survived for seven years, tasked with producing regular reports detailing the level of republican and loyalist paramilitary activity, including any committed by the Provisional IRA. Its four commissioners were drawn from the UK, US and both parts of Ireland and included, in its final years, a former deputy director of the CIA and the former head of the Metropolitan Police anti-Terror Branch.
It is worth revisiting the first substantive report it produced following the IRA’s July 2005 decision to end its violence against the British presence in Northern Ireland. Published in October 2006, it had this to say of the Provisionals: “We remain of the view which we expressed in our report six months ago, namely that the PIRA leadership has committed itself to following the political path. In the period since then we have seen further evidence to support this.”
The report went on to detail some of that ‘further evidence’, including the disbandment of the IRA’s Quarter Master department, responsible for acquiring weapons; its engineering department, which made explosives and bombs and its training department. Volunteers had been stood down and the weekly stipend paid to activists stopped.
It was meaty stuff. Contrast that convincing detail with the statement issued by PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton following the murder of Kevin McGuigan. His admission, first of all, that the IRA still existed came as a shock to a public which, in the absence of any other information, had been encouraged to believe it had gone away.
And then he seemed to say that while IRA members were involved in killing Mr McGuigan, the IRA itself wasn’t really responsible, conflicting words that arguably worsened an already vexed situation: “Some current Provisional IRA and former members continue to engage in a range of criminal activity and occasional violence in the interest of personal gain or personal agendas.”
The idea of the IMC was born in 2003 out of frustration with the slow pace of IRA decommissioning and a paucity of evidence that things were changing on the ground.
The brainchild of Michael HC McDowell, a former Irish journalist and now a US-based consultant, it won the backing of his namesake in the Irish Department of Justice as well as Mitchell Reiss, the former State Department official who had become George W Bush’s ambassador to the peace process. Both men were known to be almost apoplectic at the willingness of the Blair government to indulge Sinn Fein and the readiness of the British to minimise the consequence of IRA excesses such as the Northern Bank robbery or the murder of Robert McCartney.
The Northern Ireland Office opposed the idea, seeing it as impinging on their mandate. But the strongest resistance came from Sinn Fein. “They didn’t want it”, recalled Michael HC McDowell. “They were furious about the idea, complaining it would be dominated by spooks and securocrats. They wanted constructive ambiguity to continue unabated.”
It took seven years but eventually Sinn Fein got their way and the IMC was wound up. In the absence of regular reports about paramilitary activity and in the face mostly of reassuring silence from government and police services on both sides of the Border, the public began to think the IRA was a thing of the past, hence the level of shock at the revelation that not only had it not gone away but it had structures, guns and the personnel to use them.
It is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that in the absence of regular scrutiny by an IMC-like body the IRA has slipped back into bad old ways, taking advantage of the constructive ambiguity, not to mention personal ambition, that can also characterise the ways of senior policemen, civil servants and their ministers.
The problem with former Minister McDowell’s “unarmed and withering husk” thesis is that unarmed husks impress no-one, much less dissident republican opponents or a rank and file that needs constant reassurance that the peace process is not the biggest sell out since creation.
In that October 2006 report, the IMC made this bald statement about IRA weapons: “We do not believe that weapons have been acquired or developed”, and it went on to confirm its view that the IRA had destroyed its weapons arsenals in September 2005.
That, plainly, is no longer the case. Kevin McGuigan was killed with powerful weapons, one of them a semi-automatic rifle. Clearly, new weapons have been acquired or the IRA was not entirely truthful in September 2005.
On the question of IRA structures, Chief Constable Hamilton had this to say: “At this stage we assess that some Provisional IRA organisational infrastructure continues to exist but has undergone significant change since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Some, primarily operational level structures were changed and some elements have been dissolved completely since 2005.”
That tells the public next to nothing and is in dismal contrast to the compelling detail provided by the IMC.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the IRA has taken advantage of the IMC’s dissolution to harden up its husk and to give it some sharp claws. The solution, and perhaps the key to salvaging the peace process, is thus not hard to figure.
(Ed Moloney is author of ‘A Secret History of the IRA’)