New strategy for Ireland

The IRA refusal to hand over arms does not mean the failure of the peace process

Every year the Nobel Peace Prize is handed out to those who have done sterling work on behalf on world imperialism: Henry Kissinger, the ‘Peace People’, Mikhail Gorbachev, Itzhak Rabin, etc. This year, under the auspices of the New World Order, it is John Hume and David Trimble who get the prize for helping to engineer the Good Friday agreement.

But even as the semi-beatified Hume and Trimble stepped onto the Oslo stage - Hume even managed to say a few words in Norwegian - there were rumblings about the well-being of the peace process. Did you notice that there were no handshakes in Oslo? More alarming for some was the fact that the IRA still had not made any tangible move towards wholesale decommissioning.

Then the likes of the BBC and the rightwing Tory press got really jittery. In fact, the objective and neutral BBC decided at the weekend to launch its own limited propaganda war, trying to convince us that the British-Irish Agreement was in imminent danger - from the supposed ‘hawks’ and ‘men of violence’ within the IRA. The stream of disinformation continues as we write.

Consequently, it has been boldly reported that the IRA has categorically rejected an arms handover. This generated agitated soundbites and headlines about the “deadlocked” peace process. Last Friday, according to the BBC and Irish state broadcaster RTE, IRA sources said they had “firmly ruled out” any decommissioning and that all talk of a “gesture” - or tokenistic handover - was “fanciful”.

In many respects, these tough-sounding words from IRA sources are in retaliation to Trimble’s acceptance speech at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony the day before. He issued a plea to the IRA to start a “credible process of decommissioning” in order to allow Sinn Féin to take its two seats on the new Northern Ireland executive. Unsurprisingly, Sinn Féin was less than enamoured by Trimble’s remarks, insisting they are entitled to take their seats solely on the basis of their electoral mandate. The agreement merely states that all parties should use their influence to achieve decommissioning by May 2000.

That was not all. There was more grist to be added to the media mill. It transpires that two weeks ago the IRA’s army convention elected a new seven-member army council, with the Marxist ‘hardliner’ Brian Keenan replacing Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy as chief of staff. Keenan purportedly organised the IRA’s bombing campaigns in London and the south-east during 1973-74. It is also claimed that he was instrumental in obtaining arms and guns from Colonel Gadaffi and it is widely reported that he was one of the key movers behind the Canary Wharf bomb in February 1996. The doom and gloom spread by the BBC must have given some comfort to those who believe that SF/IRA are operating according to the strictures of some diabolically cunning plot  - which will outflank and outmanoeuvre British imperialism as surely as day follows night.

However, the truth is somewhat more prosaic. The IRA statement actually says there will be no arms handover “immediately”. The statement on decommissioning was no doubt meant to reassure IRA members on the ground that the organisation had not gone soft and is not dancing to Trimble’s Oslo tune.

The same could essentially be said of the appointment of Keenan. Some may believe - or hope - that this represents a retreat into rejectionism and ‘militarism’. But though it would be wrong to underestimate the significance of Keenan’s election, it must be recognised that he is bound by majority votes. The Observer quotes an IRA source as saying: “People had the same anxiety about Slab Murphy when he was appointed, but there is a tendency in the IRA to neutralise you by promoting you. Everyone thought appointing a hard man from South Armagh would turn the strategy around. It didn’t. Murphy turned out to be just a holding operation, and now it’s Keenan’s turn. He has no actual authority over anyone else in the army council. He is like the president or chairman. I wouldn’t see this as a change of direction” (December 13). In other words, a ‘hardline’ figurehead at the helm of the IRA might be useful to the SF leadership. Keenan’s unimpeachable republican and leftwing credentials will perhaps make it easier to sell decommissioning - if and when necessary - to members and supporters.

Tony Blair, for one, did not seem that alarmed by the rise of Keenan. He shrugged his shoulders, remarking: “I wouldn’t lay too much stress on one particular report. I don’t pretend to know the inner workings of the IRA. That’s up to them. What I know is the agreement must be implemented.” Significantly, he has reiterated that the accelerated release programme will continue. There are only 90 republican prisoners still serving sentences in the Maze, and SF reports that only 21 of these will be kept in over Christmas.

Somewhat pathetically Andrew MacKay, the Tory Northern Ireland secretary, blustered on about how “shocking” he found the IRA statement, adding: “Perhaps Tony Blair will now respond to our demands that he draws a line in the sand and says no more early release of terrorist prisoners until there is substantial and verifiable decommissioning.” The Tories are increasingly ‘off message’ when it comes to the peace process in Northern Ireland - as they are about almost everything else you care to mention.

After the Tory huff and puff, The Guardian introduced some sense of - imperialist - perspective, reminding us that Gerry Adams had held private meetings with Bill Clinton during the week, which can only be a good thing. It also warned against putting too much pressure on the IRA leadership over the decommissioning issue:

“The military men continue to regard the handover of weapons as a surrender - the one action no army can countenance. Sinn Féin sources insist that Mr Adams has taken the republican movement much further than anyone thought possible by persuading it to accept an effectively partitionist settlement” (December 11).

It is clear that imperialist-brokered peace is breaking out in Northern Ireland. SF is totally committed to the process. But the IRA’s arms remain its most important bargaining chip. Decommissioning will only begin - if it ever does - when SF/IRA has extracted every last concession it believes possible in relation to posts in the Stormont government, cross-border institutions and the new police authority. Crucially it must convince its supporters that the British will not renege on the release of republican prisoners.

Nevertheless, while SF/IRA is prepared to go to the brink, even if this means a delay in setting up the new Northern Ireland administration or institutionalising north-south cooperation, it will not risk the agreement’s complete collapse. Adams and McGuinness have invested too much in the deal.

While concessions to the republicans are real and undisputed, this does not change the character of the settlement. The anti-imperialist revolutionary movement, although undefeated, is being forced to accept New World Order reality. The vast majority of the nationalist community is behind the agreement and its intentions - to ignore this obvious fact and go it alone, as the Real IRA attempted, would be to turn to the politics of despair.

A new communist perspective is required, one which looks to democracy and the self-activity of the masses - not US presidents, or the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

Eddie Ford