The IRA is still at war.

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Aug. 1 2005 4:45 PM

The Adams Family

The IRA is still at war.

Gerry Adams' political theater
Click image to expand.
Gerry Adams' political theater

It's hard not to be impressed by last week's statement from the Irish Republican Army declaring an end to its armed campaign. Tony Blair welcomed the statement's "clarity" and called it "a step of unparalleled magnitude." Indeed, P O'Neill, the nom de plume of the IRA's secretive leadership, for once appeared to write without caveats and quid-pro-quo demands of the IRA's British and unionist enemies. The IRA leadership claims the republican struggle for a united Ireland will now continue exclusively through democratic politics.

The resulting oohing and aahing in the press has obscured a few inconvenient facts. To begin with, the IRA hasn't moved much: Its position today is virtually the same as seven months ago, when talks on restoring Northern Ireland's power-sharing assembly foundered on demands for photographic evidence that IRA weapons were being destroyed. Last week's announcement unilaterally commits the IRA to putting its weapons beyond use, with verification by an international commission, along with two witnesses from the Protestant and Catholic churches.There will still be no photographs. This is brilliant PR: Had the IRA done the same thing in December, a public that had grown weary of the Irish peace process would have greeted the news with a yawn. After seven months in which the peace process looked like it was on the ropes, the IRA is now disarming with a flourish rather than a whimper.

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The driving force behind this charade is the audacious political cunning of Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing. In March, I wrote about a theory advanced by Ed Moloney, author of A Secret History of the IRA and arguably one of the people most knowledgeable about the IRA's inner workings. Moloney suggested that last December's $51 million Belfast bank robbery, for which the IRA has been widely blamed, was actually part of Adams' covert strategy to maneuver the IRA from within, so that disarming was the only option left. In that case, I wrote that Adams was in danger of losing control of the situation. Since then, Adams has proved a more skillful tactician that I gave him credit for—and Moloney's theory looks more believable than ever.

In an April speech, Adams made a public appeal to the "leadership" of the IRA to accept peace. Thursday's P O'Neill statement was ostensibly a response. Yet, until a reshuffle a few days ago, Adams was widely believed to be a senior member of the IRA's Army Council, its secretive seven-man ruling body. Adams was therefore partly addressing himself, and he had a strong hand in crafting the IRA's reply. As statesmanship goes, this is pretty outrageous stuff, but it makes for effective political theater as voters buy into Sinn Fein's peace credentials. The only party to field candidates for both the Dublin and London parliaments, Sinn Fein's support remains strong, despite what looked like a string of blunders—starting with the bank robbery—on the part of the IRA over the last seven months. Adams easily held on to his West Belfast seat in the British parliamentary elections in May, and Sinn Fein remains the leading nationalist party in the North. A June poll showed it maintaining a respectable 11-percent support in the Irish Republic.

The IRA, meanwhile, has turned into a vigilante mafia since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It specializes in smuggling, robbery, punishment beatings of reprobates within Catholic communities, thuggish intimidation of those that cross members' paths, and the occasional "Padre Pio"—a special way of dealing with opponents that leaves the victim with stigmatalike bullet holes in his palms. For years, Irish and British politicians turned a blind eye to Sinn Fein's connection to such unsavory behavior. But the brazenness of the December bank robbery and the January murder of Robert McCartney—a Catholic nationalist whose only crime was angering the wrong Provo in a Belfast bar—quickly led to demands that IRA criminality cease completely if Sinn Fein is to be accepted as a mainstream political party.

Thursday's statement said that IRA members have been instructed to pursue politics "through exclusively peaceful means" and "must not engage in any other activities whatsoever." It is unclear if this awkward phrase signals an end to criminality and thuggery. If the IRA is not to engage "in any other activities," one wonders why the Army Council has been reshuffled rather than dissolved.

Finally, it still isn't clear if the IRA has formally ended its war against the British. Last week's statement spoke of an end to the "armed campaign," not an end to war. According to the IRA's constitution, a final peace declaration must be ratified by a General Army Convention, a large gathering of delegates representing the IRA's rank and file. Several news outlets reported that an Army Convention did not, in fact, take place ahead of Thursday's announcement, suggesting that IRA leaders were not sure a majority of delegates would have played along.

Ed Moloney raised this point on Irish radio last Thursday, and he was nearly drowned out by fellow panelists who accused him of displaying insufficient enthusiasm for the IRA declaration. I asked Moloney via e-mail what he thought about the "unprecedented internal discussion and consultation process" mentioned by P O'Neill. Moloney was dubious, to say the least. "The Army Council does not and never has consulted its membership about anything. If they did, the peace process would never have happened," he replied. "What happens is that there are meetings at various levels, people are told what the leadership plans to do and the question asked, 'Does anyone have a problem with that?' Brave is the man or woman who stands up and says 'Yes, I have a question.' "

Amid the hullabaloo, it might seem petty to point out procedural lapses in the Army Council's machinations. But it is too early to say if the IRA is transforming itself into a harmless old boys club. Despite the grandiose declarations of P O'Neill—the mysterious Mr. Hyde to Gerry Adams' smooth-talking Dr. Jekyll—the IRA is still formally at war.

Scott MacMillan is a freelance journalist who lives in Cairo.

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