cj#1007> IRA strategy and the Northern Ireland peace process

1999-11-08

Richard Moore

Dear cj,

Even here in Ireland (or the UK) it is not easy to understand what's going
on behind-the-scenes in the peace process, nor to predict the outcome of
that process - despite frequent 'in depth' reporting.  Elsewhere the
coverage is probably more spotty and is most likely spun for local
consumption.

A major breakthrough was announced this weekend, and this seems like a good
time to say a few words about what's been going on, from this observer's
perspective.  The breakthrough illustrates the interplay of the three
forces that have been shaping the the ongoing process - top-down pressure
for a settlement from top Western leadership, the predictability of the
reactionary Unionists, and the strategic astuteness of the IRA
revolutionary movement.

The breakthrough itself was a decision by IRA leadership to instruct its
armed units to prepare for 'tactical decommisioning'.  News reports were
quite clear that this move would leave the IRA as strong as ever and as
well organized as ever.  The decommisioning is to be a token gesture only,
a sign of goodwill to the Unionists.  Nonetheless, the IRA decision was
heralded as a 'seismic shift' in the negotiations, and subsequent reports
are saying that Sinn Fein and the Unionists are close to agreement.  The
likely success of this strategic IRA initiative arises from its
well-calculated timing.

Pressure for settlement from top Western leadership - symbolized by the
participation of a US trouble-shooter (Senator Mitchell) and the personal
involvement of President Clinton - has been building for some time.  The
media (including Hollywood, with the likes of "In the Name of the Father")
played its faithful role by translating the priorities of Western
leadership into the arousal of public support for a settlement.  It is this
kind of pressure which led to the Good Friday Agreement, and it is such
pressure which has brought about the recent and intense negotiating
sessions.  As of last week that pressure had reached a climax, and the IRA
chose that perfect moment to put their apparently deal-clinching proposal
on the table.

Over the course of the recent negotiations, the reactionary Unionists had
followed a strategy of delay.  They refused to participate in meetings;
they said they wouldn't sit with 'terrorists'; they issued divisive press
reports - anything at all to stall and sabotage the peace process.  Their
behavior was clearly contrary to the letter and spirit of the Good Friday
agreement - which they had signed.  They came under increasing pressure
from above to be more cooperative and forthcoming - to honor their
agreements.

One by one, in the course of the intense negotiations, the Unionist's
sabotage tactics were taken from them.  In the end their delaying strategy
was whittled down to a single demand: visible decommisioning _prior to the
creation of a Northern exectutive.  In their reactionary desperation, the
Unionists had allowed themselves to be backed out on a strategic limb.  By
making their move when they did, the IRA have chopped off that limb,
leaving the Unionists with no apparent option but to live up to the Good
Friday agreement.

As the negotiations had been reaching a climax, most outside observers had
assessed 'blame' equally.  Both sides seemed equally unreasonable and
intransigent.  Toward the end, the IRA seemed perhaps the more stubborn -
since a token de-commisioning would cost them little.  The IRA, of course,
had known all along that such a de-commissioning would be an easy token for
them to toss into the bargaining game.  They also knew, that once that
token was played, the Unionists would seek some other pretext for delay.

The elimination of paramilitary arsenals is a very emotional public issue,
and the IRA deftly exploited this issue so as to move the peace process
forward.  By taking a stubborn position against prior decommissioning, the
IRA was essentially setting out attractive bait for the Unionists.  As the
pressure for settlement mounted, the Unionists were enticed to take this
bait - they hung their entire strategic defense on a point which was of
only tactical significance to the IRA.

What had _appeared to be unreasonable stubborness on the part of the IRA
was in fact something quite different.  It was the strategic exploitation
of a Unionist vulnerability.  Unionist stubborness, on the other hand, _was
simply unreasonable - it reflected an implicit repudiation of the Good
Friday Agreement.  The IRA, as is typical of revolutionary movements,
deployed creative tactics against a strategic regime vulnerability.  The
Unionists, as is typical of reactionary regimes, were limited in their
responses by their own defensive mentality.  In this way a revolutionary
movement has a strategic advantage, and can sometimes prevail in the face a
stronger adversary.

The Good Friday Agreement, even if imperfect, represents a step forward for
the people of Northern Ireland.  Besides calling for the full
decommissining of paramilitary weapons, the agreement establishes an
executive which is broadly representative of the population.  For decades
the Unionists had been ruling as a majority tyrant, much as the White
establishment had ruled over blacks in the American South.  The "troubles"
arose in fact out of a civil-rights movement - much like the American South
was experiencing at about the same time.

In the US, the reactionary regime blamed the trouble on "outside
agitators".  They were either lying or deceiving themselves.  In Northern
Ireland, the reactionary regime blamed the trouble on "IRA plots".  They
too were either lying or deceiving themselves.   Although "outside
agitators" didn't start the US civil-rights movement, they were in fact
drawn in later - in the form of Freedom Riders and aroused Northern liberal
voters.

And although the IRA didn't foment the Northern Ireland civil-rights
movement, they were drawn in to defend their communities from reactionary
suppression.  It soon became apparent that only a revolutinary movement
against British-Ulster oppression could achieve civil rights, and thus the
IRA gradually developed a stratetic revolutionary program.

The Good Friday Agreement represents a victory for civil rights and for
democratic representation.  There is no reason why the IRA wouldn't view
the agreement as a revolutionary victory - and in fact they have enforced
its provisions within their organization to the best of their ability.  Not
only that, but they've played their cards shrewdly so as to maneuver the
peace process around the obstacles laid down by Unionist bad faith and
intransigience.

Until very recently, Unionists have always made a point of referring to
Sinn Fein and IRA as being one and the same.  In fact, the IRA is an armed
underground movement, and Sinn Fein is a legally established political
party.  Unionist and Sinn Fein leaders alike have been accused of past
involvement in underground activities.  But in both cases the decision to
enter the political arena marks a decision to puruse peaceful means of
resolving conflict.

Sinn Fein and IRA both arise from the same community.  Sinn Fein represents
the hope that the community has in the democratic process, and its leaders
are dedicated to that hope.  The IRA represents those elements of the
community that  believe the Ulster-British regime understands only force,
and that only force can compel them to grant the community full citizenship.

The IRA perspective has perhaps been more realistic, given the suppressive
behavior of the Ulster regime and the collaboration of that reigme with
illegal Loyalist paramilitaries.  Only outside pressure, as symbolized by
Mitchell's involvment, has enabled the democratic process to become viable
as a channel for significant change.

Given that Sinn Fein and the IRA both share the same fundamental objectives
- full citizenship for their community - it is no wonder that their
independent strategies are in harmony.  The IRA strategy reflects a
military mentality - with a senstivity to strategic positioning, and the
focused deployment, or withholding, of tactical forces.   Sinn Fein, as the
community's democratically elected delegates, represents the sentiments of
all segments of the community, and has acted responsibly in taking a
consistent, principled line in negotiations.  Sinn Fein strove to achieve a
win-win implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and did its best to
reduce divisiveness, both privately and publicly.

Meanwhile the Unionists, as part of their sabotage tactics, intentionally
spread divisiveness by making baseless and alarming public accusations
against Sinn Fein sincerity and IRA intentions.  If it were not for intense
outside pressure, working in harmony with astute IRA strategy and
consistent Sinn Fein diplomacy, the roadblock tactics of Unionist reaction
could not have been overcome.  Renewed civil war seems to have been
avoided, despite the stubborness of the Unionists.

imho,
rkm


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