18 September 2003 Edition
Words of history burning in our pockets
BY JIM GIBNEY
The Armed Peace: Life and death after the Ceasefires
By Brian 'Barney' Rowan
Of all the possible titles that Barney Rowan could have chosen for his second book about the peace process, 'The Armed Peace: Life and death after the Cease-fires', the phrase, 'armed peace' is a good summary of what exists in the Six Counties today.
Indeed, it is arguable that the Six Counties was in a state of 'armed peace' since partition in 1920 until 1969 because the armed forces on the battlefield across Ireland between 1916 and 1923 exist today with greater strength, although largely confined to the Six Counties.
Some might argue, especially republicans, that the book's title and content suggests too narrow a focus for the peace process, with an undue emphasis on the 'armed' element.
This is understandable, given the way in which the British government and unionists used the existence of arms and only those in the IRA's hands to undermine the peace process and delay the change promised as a result of the cessations and the Good Friday Agreement.
Republicans prefer to describe what exists as an 'imperfect peace', which I think implies the same thing.
Such criticism, although understandable, would be a mistake because it is primarily the decisions taken by people who are in the various military organisations that have shaped the political landscape in this country, especially over the last ten years.
It has also to be said that decisions made by military personnel and organisations were grounded in the changing political circumstances here and abroad. Decisions were not taken in an isolated or uninformed military mind-set.
To acknowledge the reality of decisions taken by military organisations in no way invalidates the indispensable contribution that political leaders and parties have made and continue to make to the peace process.
In this book, Rowan has attempted to present a balanced history of the impact of the ceasefires on the IRA, MI5, the RUC Special Branch, the loyalists, the British and Irish governments and the various political parties.
Not surprisingly, given that he has been the BBC's security correspondent for the past 15 years, we are given this assessment very much through a prism of briefings from one military source or another.
The book's story is built around Rowan's clandestine meetings with sources inside the IRA, MI5, the RUC Special Branch and the loyalists.
It is probably this aspect of the book that gives it a special flavour, which makes it stand out from others written about the peace process.
And while this is probably the book's greatest strength, it may well also be its main weakness because I was left asking myself many times over: Where are the British and loyalist guns?' Why don't they feature in the book in the same way that the IRA's guns do?
Why is there not comparable analysis of the place, role and future use of the guns in the hands of the British crown forces and the loyalists?
While the author mentions the existence of loyalist guns and the contradictions for those demanding the IRA's guns while they are virtually silent about loyalist and British guns, especially when loyalist guns are being used to kill Catholics and other loyalists in feuds, the existence of these guns and the over 30,000 in the hands of the crown forces don't really impact in the book in the way the IRA's guns do.
Of course this is not the author's fault. He cannot be blamed for the fact that British governments under the Tories and then under Labour joined forces with unionists to make decommissioning of IRA weapons a precondition to making political progress.
Nor can he be blamed for the fact that republicans are the driving force of the peace process; that it is their many initiatives, including the IRA calling its first cessation, it breaking down, then calling a second cessation, which places it centre stage.
And we must always remember the demand for decommissioning is a British government demand. They are the power brokers and could have easily put the issue to bed long before now. Instead, they have regularly stoked the demand and allowed it to dog the peace process by supporting the unionists.
In many ways ,republicans and particularly the IRA are the story of the peace process. But they are not the only story.
The book shows that the British government and the unionists are fixated on the IRA. And it is not just because they are afraid of what the IRA might do with its weapons if the peace process were to irretrievably break down.
The British government and the unionists are trying to defeat a peacetime IRA, something they could not do with a wartime IRA.
This is not republican propaganda and the pages of this book show that there is an additional burden placed on republicans and on the IRA to deliver over and above what Sinn Féin agreed to in the Good Friday Agreement.
One is left with a very distinct impression that the British government and the unionists are trying to create a decommissioning process, not a peace process - that they are not committed to genuine conflict resolution and have a superior moral attitude to republicans, blaming them for the war and the human cost of it.
I asked myself at several points in the book where republicans, and in particular the IRA, get the patience to deal with the insatiable demands from the British and the unionists.
I would bring the reader's attention to three chapters that I believe shine out more than the others because of the author's insight into the subject he is covering.
They are: 'Revenge on Castlereagh', 'Saving the Peace Process' and Mad Dogs and Ulstermen'.
'Revenge on Castlereagh' introduces the British element into the book in the form of MI5. This is a welcome arrival because I believe there is not enough analysis of British policy, political and military, in the book. The chapter repeats the claim, which Rowan believes, that the IRA raided Castlereagh and was spying on the 'Northern Ireland Office'. He relies unquestioningly on his sources inside the RUC Special Branch and MI5 to back his claim, although he also carries the IRA's denial in full.
But for me, the gem in this chapter is how Bill Lowry, then head of the Special Branch in Belfast, was shafted by his superiors. This man was at the forefront of the war at all levels, overt and covert, against republicans and others for 30 years. Yet inside a 48-hour period, he was chopped down and dumped.
He retired against a background that someone senior inside the British intelligence system was leaking sensitive information to the media. The leaks were well timed and on occasions created instability in the peace process.
'Saving the Peace' is about the IRA's first 'arms beyond use' initiative. In this chapter, Rowan captures well the mood and the emotion of the time. He reports on a republican gathering in Conway Mill.
The republicans were there to listen to Gerry Adams, one of only two people, the other being Martin Mc Guinness, who could have told this audience the IRA were about to do the unthinkable.
The author accurately describes the occasion as 'wake-like'; applause there was for Gerry Adams but it was polite and more out of respect for Gerry as leader... 'no one was cheering'. This was an initiative that had to be 'chiselled out of IRA stone'.
The 23 October 2001, the day the IRA issued its statement declaring its arms initiative, was for most republicans a day more difficult than the IRA's statement announcing the first cessation in August 1994.
Martin McGuinness described the initiative correctly as a 'decision of great strength' and the IRA as having 'effectively liberated everybody within this process'.
In the same chapter, Gerry Adams put his finger on the republican pulse when he said... 'it was a move too far. People were actually hurt by what happened'.
Rowan pulls no punches in the chapter 'Mad Dogs and Ulstermen'. Using his considerable knowledge and contacts inside loyalism, he traces the steady disintegration of the UDA under Adair and White's leadership from the high point where they called a ceasefire with other loyalists and backed the Good Friday Agreement to where they turned their guns and bombs on defenceless Catholics, other loyalists and then their own community.
Rowan accuses Adair and White of being well practised liars, of speaking out of both sides of their mouths at the same time. In public, they said all the right things about supporting the peace process, while in private they waged a sectarian and internecine war while they built a huge drugs empire and amassed great sums of money.
Collusion between the British and the loyalists is referred to in the book, but I think another book is required to look at this issue in more detail, especially the period since the Good Friday Agreement, when British intelligence agencies played loyalists like a fiddler's elbow.
There is a lot of detail in this book. It requires to be read more than once and at a slow pace and I know it will be. A number of very good books have been written covering the same period as this book. It will join that list. It makes a valuable contribution to understanding how we have arrived at this particular juncture.
I will close with what I consider to be the book's most pertinent observation by Barney Rowan, on page 32: "...this has been a peace process full of confusion, full of complications and full of contradictions", yet it is still working. (Please take note Messrs Blair and Trimble).
It could not be anything else, given that we are trying to move a society and people out of hundreds of years of conflict.