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31 August 2019

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The IRA cessation – perspectives, 25 years on

“The Peace Process, fundamental to which was the IRA cessation of August 1994, has helped to transform Ireland. The days of armed conflict in the Six Counties are long past. The days of entrenched discrimination, military occupation, mass imprisonment and blatant censorship are gone and are not returning. And it is all a work in progress because key rights have yet to be won.”

As time passes historical perspectives lengthen and the broad political landscape we have traversed comes into view. In 2019 we have perspectives of twenty-five years since the first IRA cessation and the start of the Peace Process, fifty years since the armed conflict began in 1969 and one hundred years since the establishment of the First Dáil Éireann and its suppression by the British government. We can see more clearly now than ever that all three events are inextricably linked.

Armed Unionism, both in the form of State forces - the RUC and B Specials - and in the form of the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force, began the armed conflict. UVF murders in 1966 and bombings in 1969 were precursors to the widespread armed attacks on nationalists in Derry and Belfast in August 1969, including the pogroms in Belfast. That forced movement of thousands of nationalists and destruction of hundreds of homes did not end in 1969. It continued for months, culminating in the attack on Short Strand in June 1970 which was successfully repulsed by the IRA, and pogroms were attempted again sporadically. Loyalist paramilitary violence was for twenty-five years directed primarily at Catholic civilians, identifying them by their very existence as a nationalist and republican threat.

70s-Stand-by-the-IRA

Far from confronting armed loyalism the British state, after the deployment of the British Army on the streets in 1969, soon recruited it as a key element of its counter-insurgency strategy. That role developed over the twenty-five years into a complex web of collusion which is still being disentangled. Shoring up the Orange state and Britain’s strategic interest in Ireland was the priority of the British Army, as seen by its implementation of internment without trial in August 1971 and its deliberate killing of civilians in Ballymurphy in that month, and in Derry in January 1972.

This context is essential to any understanding of the longevity and intensity of the IRA’s armed struggle. The very existence of the reorganised IRA as demonstrated in Short Strand in 1970 was a deterrent to loyalist attacks on nationalist areas. This continued to be so even long after the IRA went from a primarily defensive role to an offensive strategy against the Orange state and British military occupation.

The armed response of Unionism in 1969, both state and non-state, was primarily to the demands of the Civil Rights movement and its mobilisation of nationalists and as a warning to Unionist Prime Minister Terence O’Neill not to concede to those demands. The latter factor represented the split within Unionism which had been politically monolithic since the Orange state was founded. That split has persisted to this day. Paisleyite Unionism toppled O’Neill in 1969, leading to the rise of hard-liner Brian Faulkner as Stormont Prime Minister. He presided over Internment and Bloody Sunday but these, and the increasingly intensive IRA campaign, left the British government with little choice but to save Unionism from itself and prorogue Stormont in 1972. There was no Peace Process in 1973 when the Sunningdale Agreement was signed by Faulkner, the SDLP and the British and Irish governments. Internment was in force. Sinn Féin was banned. British military occupation of nationalist areas was in full force. So much for Séamus Mallon’s jibe that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’!

70s-Resist-Brit-Bullys

Hard-line Unionists brought down the Sunningdale Executive in ‘74 as they had toppled O’Neill in ‘69. For Republicans all of this appeared to be vindication of their strategy of putting maximum armed pressure on the British state and pushing it to the crisis point where British withdrawal was a serious option. To many observers at the time, not just to Republicans, it looked as if this point might indeed be reached. The talks between Republican representatives and British government officials in London during the short-lived Truce of July 1972, seemed to support this view. Both the IRA and the British military at this time seem to have thought in terms of another ‘big push’ forcing the other side into a corner – the British pushing to militarily defeat the IRA, the IRA trying to force the British to the table to discuss withdrawal.

Of course this was not what transpired. After a low point for the IRA in 1975-’76, a political and military stalemate set in, with armed conflict fuelled by a cycle of British State repression and Republican resistance. The missing element on the Republican side at this time was any serious political development to challenge the SDLP and the Irish government. The change came slowly when the cycle of repression and resistance reached a crisis in the prisons with the British policy of criminalisation in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh and Armagh Jail. The deaths of the ten young Republicans on Hunger Strike in 1981 have been described as “our 1916” in terms of lasting emotional and political impact. It could also be said that the dogged intransigence of Thatcher during the Hunger Strikes and subsequently, echoed that of the British government in the wake of the 1918 General Election and the establishment of the First Dáil. This provided further impetus for the IRA’s campaign which persisted throughout the 1980s, posing a serious challenge to British military occupation.

Sinn Féin’s electoral success in the Six Counties from 1982 to 1985 dealt a severe blow to the attempted isolation of Republicans in which the British and Irish governments and the SDLP were at one. The Hillsborough Agreement was a response to that Republican resurgence, locking the Irish government and the SDLP closer into British strategy, a project helped rather than hindered by the furious Unionist reaction to Hillsborough. The price for this was paid by nationalist communities with loyalist murder gangs stepping up their attacks and with a reinforced Border. In a climate of tighter censorship, this development kept the repression-resistance cycle turning.

With the war in progress for 20 years questions began to be asked on all sides about its continuing horrendous cost in human terms and about how peace could be achieved. For many, armed conflict seemed a permanent feature of life and death in Ireland with no end in sight. For Republicans, hard questions had to be addressed about some IRA operations, resulting in the deaths of civilians, albeit that the IRA’s capacity to continue its campaign, however modified, was not in doubt. The IRA had never claimed it could defeat the British militarily. Now retired senior British military officers were saying that a military defeat of the IRA was not possible. In theory the war could go on at some level indefinitely, but at what cost and to what political purpose?

This was the context in which Sinn Féin was exploring pathways to peace and a negotiated settlement, initially in private behind the scenes. The dialogue between Gerry Adams and John Hume which eventually became public was crucial. The utter venom that greeted that dialogue from large sections of the political establishment in the 26 Counties should not be forgotten, directed as it was especially at John Hume. But Hume and Adams had established as a key principle the recognition of all mandates and an end to efforts to isolate and censor and exclude. This principle was recognised by Albert Reynolds when he became Taoiseach. The involvement of Irish America and the Clinton administration, as well as the wider Irish disapora, was also crucial. Slowly, tentatively, a broad consensus for an inclusive Peace Process was built. This culminated in the announcement of the IRA cessation of military operations on 31 August 1994.

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It is worth recalling the statement then issued by the IRA:

"Recognising the potential of the current situation and in order to enhance the democratic process and underline our definitive commitment to its success, the leadership of Óglaigh na hÉireann have decided that as of midnight, August 31, there will be a complete cessation of military operations. All our units have been instructed accordingly.

At this crossroads the leadership of the IRA salutes and commends our volunteers, other activists, our supporters and the political prisoners who have sustained the struggle against all odds for the past 25 years. Your courage, determination and sacrifice have demonstrated that the freedom and the desire for peace based on a just and lasting settlement cannot be crushed. We remember all those who have died for Irish freedom and we reiterate our commitment to our republican objectives. Our struggle has seen many gains and advances made by nationalists and for the democratic position.

We believe that an opportunity to secure a just and lasting settlement has been created. We are therefore entering into a new situation in a spirit of determination and confidence, determined that the injustices which created this conflict will be removed and confident in the strength and justice of our struggle to achieve this.

We note that the Downing Street Declaration is not a solution, nor was it presented as such by its authors. A solution will only be found as a result of inclusive negotiations. Others, not the least the British government have a duty to face up to their responsibilities. It is our desire to significantly contribute to the creation of a climate which will encourage this. We urge everyone to approach this new situation with energy, determination and patience."

It is hard to believe that is all of 25 years ago. The path to inclusive negotiations was tortuous and it took until April 1998 for the Good Friday Agreement to be achieved. This was followed by the phased release of political prisoners, the long battle to reform policing which saw the end of the RUC and the establishment of the PSNI, the saga of ‘decommissioning’ which eventually saw weapons put beyond use under independent supervision, the gradual demilitarisation of the Six Counties, the establishment of all-Ireland structures and a functioning Assembly and Executive, tied into North-South and British-Irish structures. The Agreement entailed the repeal of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, and it included a crucial provision for a Border Poll on Irish Unity.

The Agreement led to yet another crisis within Unionism, just as in 1969 and 1974. Ian Paisley’s DUP relentlessly undermined David Trimble for his participation in the Executive. But again, as with O’Neill and Faulkner, Paisley himself came to the table, and having achieved his aim of DUP dominance of Unionist politics, entered the Executive with Martin McGuinness. While Paisley in turn was not toppled in quite the same way as his predecessors, opposition in the DUP to sharing power led to that party’s current leadership taking over and driving the Executive and the implementation of the Agreement into the sand, culminating in Martin McGuinness’s withdrawal.

How will the situation today be seen in another 25 years? We must await that perspective. But it is safe to say that the Peace Process, fundamental to which was the IRA cessation of August 1994, has helped to transform Ireland. The days of armed conflict in the Six Counties are long past. The days of entrenched discrimination, military occupation, mass imprisonment and blatant censorship are gone and are not returning. And it is all a work in progress because key rights have yet to be won.

The Peace Process opened up the road to a New Ireland, and it did so before Brexit was ever heard of. There has been loose talk among some media commentators about a return of armed conflict if Brexit results in a hard border. There will be no return to armed conflict nor should any group or individual delude themselves into thinking that reckless unrepresentative actions will re-ignite such a conflict. The Good Friday Agreement has the support of the vast majority of the people of Ireland; imperfect though it is, its importance is graphically illustrated by the huge dilemma it is now causing a British government as it attempts to impose a hard Brexit, against the expressed wishes of the electorate of the Six Counties and of all Ireland.

And finally, today’s situation has put into perspective, above all, the utter failure of Partition, the long road so far travelled to equality, and the way ahead to Irish Unity, national reconciliation and lasting peace.

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