2 September 2004 Edition
Thanks to the IRA
BY JIM GIBNEY
WHEN historians turn their minds to writing up the history of the conflict over the last 30-odd years, one date more than any other will shine out like a beacon across this expanse of time.
That date is 31 August 1994, the day the IRA announced a "complete cessation" of military operations.
This week marks the tenth anniversary of the IRA's announcement, an occasion which, understandably, has led to commentary and analysis in the media — not as much as you would have expected, given the significance of the occasion, but enough to instill a sense of reflection across Irish society.
In my view, 31 August 1994 will be seen as the most important date in over a century of our country's turbulent history.
There are many people entitled to be praised for the efforts they put into helping to bring about the IRA's cessation and the media and political establishment have done so.
I have no difficulty with that: John Hume, Albert Reynolds, Bill Clinton are rightly praised. I would like to add one other public but discreet figure to that list to be warmly acknowledged, Fr Alec Reid.
But the point of me writing today is to thank and praise from the bottom of my heart the leadership of the IRA, the Army Council.
Without them where would we be today? Would it have mattered who in the political establishment lined up calling for an IRA cessation? Would they have secured one? I don't think so.
No, the real praise must go to an unknown group of people who will never step up to the podium to receive the accolade they are most definitely entitled to — a group of people who were prepared to listen to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and then take their own counsel.
You will never see their names in print or in the history books. Their secrecy must be maintained to preserve the integrity of the organisation, which they lead, the IRA.
But that doesn't stop and shouldn't stop people giving them their place and recognising the mould-breaking nature of the decision they took.
When everything is rounded up, it was the Army Council who made the difference.
Commentators have estimated that at least one thousand people are alive who would otherwise have died in the conflict over the last ten years had the IRA not taken the massive decision they took.
This is reason alone to be thankful the IRA leadership took the decision they did.
There is no doubt that the prisons in Ireland and Britain would have been packed with young republican activists.
We can be certain that some republican prisoners in jail in Britain would be entering their 30th year behind bars, with no sign of release, as the establishment extracted its pound of flesh.
The resistance and the repression would have impacted on nationalist areas on a scale similar to the previous 25 years.
All of this and more, much more, has been avoided due to the IRA's wisdom.
Ten years on from that momentous turning point, it would be a mistake to believe that the cessation was inevitable. There was nothing inevitable about it.
And why should it have been? Why would the leadership of the IRA step outside hundreds of years of armed resistance to British occupation? Why would they put at risk a struggle which had claimed hundreds of its Volunteers' lives; had seen thousands of them go to jail; had seen a society in the Six Counties at war with itself over a generation.
There was little incentive for the IRA leadership to move. There was more incentive for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to stay their hand and await moves from the British Government.
Republican leaders, more than any other generation over the last 40 years, knew what they were touching when they broached the question of an IRA cessation.
They had the bad experience of previous ceasefires in 1972 and 1974-'75, especially the latter, when the British Government took advantage of the IRA's willingness to talk peace and tried to defeat them.
Many republicans believe the roots of the Hunger Strike, which claimed ten men's lives, were sown during these years, as criminalisation and the H-Blocks emerged from this period.
It was this experience which led the IRA to declare annually for over 20 years at Easter that there would never be another ceasefire.
The context within which the leadership thought things through in 1994 was fraught with danger. The subsequent departure of senior IRA figures from the IRA in 1997 is an indication of the volatility of the times.
Tom Hartley and I were given the responsibility of travelling around the North in the autumn of 1994 promoting the cessation at Sinn Féin meetings.
Republicans were in shock. They were angry. They were not prepared for the IRA's decision. How could they be? This was strictly a matter for a small group of people to decide.
The certainty of armed struggle had been removed and most people, unsure of the future, were at sea. They dug deep into their loyalty to the leadership and suspended their doubts to allow events to unfold.
They were tough times but also times of great opportunity.
The sight of Gerry Adams, John Hume and Albert Reynolds shaking hands on the steps of Government Buildings in Dublin was powerful.
No matter what else happened from that point onwards, and many great and unforeseen things have happened, I was confident, standing out of sight of the cameras with Rita O'Hare observing the handshake. I was confident that the dynamic of the Peace Process would mean that the northern Catholic and nationalist people would never again be abandoned by the Dublin Government or establishment and I was confident that Gerry Adams and Sinn Féin would do their utmost to make sure of this.
That alone was a tremendous achievement.
It is not my intention to trace the extent of the progress that has been made over the last ten years. It has been immeasurable and more is yet to come as we steer our way towards a united Ireland.
But for all of this, let me again thank the Army Council of the IRA.