Magazine article The Spectator

Hope for Ireland

Magazine article The Spectator

Hope for Ireland

Article excerpt

It may prove to be an historic step, for it is certainly an unprecedented one. No previous IRA leadership has ever decommissioned weaponry. So it is just possible that the latest moves mark a crucial psychological shift, and that the IRA will move on to embrace democratic politics, to complete its disarmament, and to make a final break with its paramilitary past. None of that can absolutely be ruled out. But caution is in order. Until 11 September, there was no sign that the IRA intended to decommission any of its weaponry. Three years earlier, the Good Friday Agreement had bound all parties to total disarmament plus the dismantling of all paramilitary structures. Three years on, hundreds of convicted murderers had been freed from prison, the SDLP had been more or less crushed as a rival to Sinn Fein, the RUC had been neutered. But the IRA had not divested itself of a single bullet, while its paramilitary structures had grown stronger as it tightened its grip in its own areas.

Then the world changed. Even the most naive and green-blinkered Irish Americans stopped romanticising terrorists, who suddenly found themselves operating in a cold climate. Given the new international pressures, the IRA had to do something - but what interpretation are we to place on this? Does it mean that the IRA's peace and politics wing has now prevailed, is in control, and will be able to push ahead towards full decommissioning? Or is the whole exercise a mere cynical ploy, which has enabled the IRA to win effusive headlines and further concessions from the British government, without significantly diminishing its terrorist capability? We will have to wait and see. In the interim, Mr Blair was right to make encouraging noises, and some gestures. Even if it is not clear what the statements mean, it is good tactics to pretend to take the IRA at its word. That should make it easier to hold them to it.

But only if the British government shows firmness of purpose. For there is a problem with all this relief and enthusiasm. The risk is that it will only confirm the IRA's hardliners in the belief that the London government will always give the maximum for the minimum; that it will make any concession and endure any humiliation as long as it can describe the outcome as peace.

There is a further danger. It is often said that in the Middle East they spend a great deal of time watching the Northern Ireland peace process and drawing analogies with their own circumstances. If so, they may be learning the wrong lessons. …

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