Prisoners out but RUC stays
The government’s bill providing for the release of Irish prisoners was published last week. As expected, it fudged the principal question that is at present the focus of divisions over the peace process not only within unionism, but also between New Labour and the Tories.
Under the terms of the bill prisoners will be entitled to release within two years, provided they are not judged by Northern Ireland secretary Mo Mowlam to be “a danger to the public” and are not supporters of a “terrorist organisation”. The term “terrorist organisation” is defined as a group engaged in, promoting or encouraging violence, and not “maintaining a complete and unequivocal ceasefire”. Clearly the military wings of parties signed up to the Mitchell principles will no longer be considered “terrorist” according to this definition - a move which led to speculation that the grounds for continuing the legal ban on the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries was being undercut and their legalisation would have to follow.
Ulster Unionist Party MP Jeffrey Donaldson said:
“I am very concerned that the definition of a terrorist organisation set out here will lead to the IRA, the UDA and the UVF no longer being proscribed organisations. You would then have terrorist groups still fully armed, but no longer regarded as illegal.”
Donaldson’s reference to “fully armed” groups alludes to the clause in the bill which requires that parties linked to paramilitaries have to be “cooperating fully” with the arms decommissioning body. There is no specific requirement for any weapons to be handed in before prisoners are released. This is precisely the nature of the fudge. Neither the IRA nor Sinn Féin has yet stated that any weapons will be surrendered to the state.
SF president Gerry Adams commented that the legislation did not “add any new preconditions” for the release of political prisoners, but UUP leader David Trimble was also satisfied. He declared that “cooperating fully” clearly meant that arms had to be handed in. The Daily Telegraph, contrasting the tough phrasing of the bill with the absence of a specific decommissioning requirement, commented: “If the language was meant to provide a fig leaf for the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble, against his unionist critics, it is scant cover indeed” (June 6).
Trimble’s “unionist critics” include not only Donaldson, who called for a ‘no’ vote in the May 22 referendum and was consequently prevented from being nominated for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, but, more importantly, the Democratic Unionist Party of Ian Paisley. Whereas both Trimble and Adams pretended to be fully satisfied with the conditions attached to the release of prisoners, Paisley, who also had a private meeting with Blair prior to the bill’s publication, ranted on about a Blair sell-out and threatened to “nail his hide to the wall” over decommissioning.
The Daily Telegraph editorial was equally scathing of the government’s failure to enforce IRA disarmament: “Mere cooperation with the decommissioning body is not enough,” it stated.
“Prisoners should be released only if weapons have been handed in to that independent entity. No ‘peace’ accord will endure, or be worthwhile, if clandestine criminal conspiracies are permitted to hold on to weaponry - and become a state within a state” (June 6).
But the Telegraph continues to ignore the plain facts of the situation. The IRA has not been defeated and cannot be forcibly disarmed. However much its editorial bemoans “criminal” activities, the state, through its proposals on prisoner release, has been forced to recognise a simple truth: IRA fighters are soldiers and prisoners of war, and can no longer be treated as criminals in practice. Nevertheless SF/IRA have clearly ended their armed resistance to the British occupation of the Six Counties. In exchange the main demand which they have insisted must be conceded under the imperialist-driven peace process is that their comrades are released.
Despite the fact that we are likely to see only a symbolic surrender of arms, there is virtually no possibility that this IRA will ever resume a full-scale offensive with the aim of driving out British imperialism. The New World Order after the collapse of the Soviet Union has just about ruled that out. Adams and McGuiness are now committed to respectable bourgeois politics. They are not the first Irish freedom fighters to have trodden this path. It is a path littered with buried weaponry that has simply been left to rust.
Yet even the Telegraph has retreated in the face of the unremitting logic of the peace process. It does not call for all weapons to be handed in. Similarly, the Conservative Party demands only that decommissioning be “underway” before prisoners are freed. The government is keen to push through the prisoner release bill by the end of the month and the opposition could theoretically prevent it from meeting its deadline. But following Mowlam’s “reassurances” to the shadow cabinet sub-committee on Northern Ireland at a meeting last week, it is highly unlikely that the Tories will refuse to cooperate.
In order to retain this cooperation and to shore up the position of the pro-agreement unionists, Blair made two announcements last week. The first concerned the two Scots Guardsmen, James Fisher and Mark Wright, who are serving a life sentence for the murder of an 18 year-old Catholic in Belfast. He told the Commons that Mowlam is to review their case “as quickly as possible”, which no doubt foresees a speedy release. The message is clear: the ending of hostilities means the freeing of all prisoners from both sides.
The second announcement came in a Belfast speech, when he assured unionists that the Royal Ulster Constabulary would not be disbanded. The commission set up under the terms of the British-Irish Agreement to review Northern Ireland policing requirements will be chaired by Chris Patten, former governor of Hong Kong. It is supposed to conduct an open-ended examination of police structures, but Blair’s announcement certainly pre-empts its findings. The RUC is almost exclusively protestant and is viewed in the nationalist/republican community as an instrument of loyalist oppression.
Nevertheless changes in its practice and structure will have to be made if Blair is to achieve the consensus he seeks. But for the moment the overwhelming priority is to ensure the defeat of the anti-agreement unionists in the June 25 elections to the assembly. Blair is desperate that Trimble holds off Paisley’s challenge and at the very least wins more seats than the DUP. Sinn Féin shares this desire, even going so far as to say that its supporters may give their lower preferences to the UUP in the single transferable electoral system - in order to keep out anti-agreement loyalists. SF understands that Blair needs to pull the ground from under Paisley’s feet.
Adams and McGuinness intend to complete their transformation into mainstream bourgeois politicians. They have their eye not only on short-term power-brokering in the Six Counties, but on staking their claim to a future major role on an all-Ireland basis.