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Sinn Fein

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Northern Ireland

Martin McGuinness, who began as a terrorist and ended up as Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, died peacefully in hospital on Monday aged 66. His career spanned almost five decades in the history of that small but troubled place – and by resigning from the power-sharing government in January, he began a new and possibly final act in that long-running drama.

If it really is the last act in the Northern Irish tragedy, leading eventually to some form of “joint sovereignty” over Northern Ireland by the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, then there may be some more blood spilled before the end. That would not have bothered McGuinness, for all his latter-day reputation as a man of peace.

As a Catholic born in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second city, McGuinness grew up believing that Britain must be driven out of Ireland and that the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland must be forced to accept unification with the Irish Republic. But the burning issue when he was a young man was the oppression of Northern Irish Catholics by the Protestant majority.

The initial Catholic protests against that in the mid-1960s were non-violent, but McGuinness (aged 21) was already the second-in-command of the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Derry at the time of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when 14 civil rights protesters were killed in the city by British soldiers.

The Provisional IRA exploited atrocities like that to convert the Catholics’ non-violent struggle for civil rights into a guerilla war employing terrorist tactics and aiming for unification with Ireland. McGuinness was one of the foremost advocates of violence, and quickly rose to become the IRA’s chief of staff.

He claimed to leave the IRA in 1974 in order to enter politics (which made it possible for him to talk to the British authorities), but all local observers agree that he remained a senior IRA operational commander at least down to the end of the 1980s. As such, he was probably responsible for such IRA innovations as “human bombs” (not to be confused with suicide bombs).

In 1990, for example, Patsy Gillespie, a Catholic civilian who worked as a cook at a British army base, was abducted by the IRA and strapped into a van packed with 450 kg of explosives. While his family was held hostage, he was ordered to drive the van to a British army check-point – whereupon the bomb was detonated, killing Gillespie and five British soldiers.

In all, the IRA killed 1,781 people during the period when McGuinness was a senior commander, including 644 civilians, and McGuinness was probably involved in the decision-making on half of those attacks. Fintan O’Toole, a columnist in the Irish Times, recently called him a “mass killer”.

But if so, he was a pragmatic mass killer. When it became clear in the 1990s that the campaign of violence was not delivering the results McGuinness had hoped for, he was open to peaceful compromise, at least until circumstances improved. He played a key role in persuading most of the more dedicated IRA killers to accept the power-sharing government embodied in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

As the leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, in Northern Ireland, McGuinness became the Deputy First Minister of the province, sharing power with the biggest Protestant party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). He was seen as a calm, constructive politician during his ten years in office – but he never lost sight of his ultimate goal.

When he resigned in January, he had two excellent pretexts for doing so. First, he knew that he was dying (from a rare heart condition). Second, First Minister Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP and his partner in office, was entangled in a profoundly embarrassing energy scandal but was stubbornly refusing to step aside.

However, McGuiness was also well aware that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union in last June’s referendum created new possibilities in Northern Ireland (which voted heavily to stay in the EU).

The open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic depends on both countries being part of the EU. When Britain leaves it will almost inevitably become a “hard” border that controls the movement of both goods and people. That would greatly anger the Catholic of Northern Ireland, and if Sinn Fein goes on refusing to appoint a deputy prime minister then no new power-sharing government is possible either.

There was an unscheduled election early this month that produced no movement from Sinn Fein, and another may be called at the end of next week. But there is no sign that either Sinn Sein or the DUP will budge, and in the end Britain may be obliged to re-impose “direct rule” from London on Northern Ireland, which would anger Catholics even more.

McGuinness was probably not hoping for a return to violence, but he was undoubtedly open to it if necessary. Solving the border issue will require creative thinking all round, and could lead to outcomes the IRA and Sinn Fein would welcome – like joint British-Irish sovereignty over Northern Ireland. A little violence could help to stimulate that kind of thinking.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“He claimed…soldiers”)

The IRA: What Went Wrong?

10 March 2005

The IRA: What Went Wrong?

By Gwynne Dyer

The implosion of the Irish Republican Army has been so sudden and complete that it seems to defy explanation. For thirty years the banned IRA commanded the loyalty of a large part of Northern Ireland’s Catholic population, and had significant support in the Republic of Ireland as well. Only months ago its legal political wing, Sinn Fein, was still seen as a necessary partner in a power-sharing government that would finally restore self-government to Northern Ireland. And now, in a matter of weeks, the IRA has dwindled in most people’s eyes to a mere criminal organisation.

It was real crimes that precipitated this dramatic change in the IRA’s public image. The first was a huge bank robbery in Northern Ireland on 19 December that netted $40 million — an incident that would have been celebrated by IRA supporters in the days when it was a revolutionary organisation waging a guerrilla war against British rule in the province, but was hard to defend eleven years after a ceasefire.

Then came a pub brawl on 30 January in a Catholic area of Belfast in which ten IRA members visiting from Derry for the Bloody Sunday commemoration, including a very senior officer, knifed Robert McCartney, an innocent fork-lift driver and Sinn Fein supporter, to death. The killers then wiped the pub clean of their fingerprints, took the tape out of the security cameras, warned the seventy witnesses not to say anything on pain of death, and left.

That was standard operating procedure in the old days, when the IRA was seen as the Catholic community’s only defence against the Protestants and the British authorities. But seven years after Sinn Fein committed itself to a peaceful political process it is just murder and intimidation , and Robert McCartney’s five sisters, all lifelong IRA supporters themselves, refused to abide by the traditional code of silence. They publicly demanded that the IRA hand their brother’s killers over to the authorities.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams invited the sisters to the party’s hundredth anniversary convention in Dublin last week in an attempt to heal the rift. It didn’t work: the sisters continued to demand that the IRA hand the killers over, and public opinion was with them. Incredibly, the IRA then offered to inflict “punishment shootings” on the guilty men: bullets through their knees, wrists and/or elbows, designed to cripple and cause a lifetime of pain but not to kill. The sisters refused, but message was clear: the IRA is still above the law and it will punish its erring members itself.

The contradiction between that stance and Sinn Fein’s commitment to a peaceful political role is so stark that the peace process now lies in ruins. Yet only three months ago a “historic compromise” between Sinn Fein and the main Protestant party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, seemed to be just around the corner: a power-sharing agreement between Gerry Adams and the DUP’s leader, Ian Paisley, that would have led to the disarming of the IRA and the restoration of self-government in the province.

It would not have been a happy marriage: Adams predicted that the new government would have “a battle a day” and Paisley agreed: “Hell would have been let loose, probably every morning.” But it would have been political hell, not terrorist hell: all of the IRA’s weapons were to be “decommissioned”, and normal, democratic political life would resume in Northern Ireland after a hiatus of over three decades. Then it all blew up in everybody’s faces.

The IRA stopped attacking the local police and British soldiers after the ceasefire of 1994, but it never abandoned violence in its own Catholic areas: dozens of people were kiolled over the years for “transgressions” ranging from drug trafficking to winning fistfights against IRA members in bars. It didn’t abandon its “fund-raising” activities, either: smuggling, extortion, money-laundering and occasional robberies. Just last year it carried out a $2 million supermarket robbery in May, a bank heist in September, and a $4 million cigarette robbery in October.

The British government had long turned a blind eye to the IRA’s involvement in these crimes in order not to damage the “peace process”, but that crashed anyway in December when Ian Paisley demanded that there be at least photographic proof that the IRA was really “decommissioning” its weapons and the IRA refused. (Gerry Adams explained that the IRA would “not submit to a process of humiliation.”) Then came history’s biggest bank job, followed by the murder of Robert McCartney and the extraordinary arrogance of the IRA’s response. It has evolved into a primarily criminal organisation with a paramilitary veneer.

That evolution was almost inevitable during the long years of the ceasefire. IRA active-service units are populated by “hard men” for whom violence is a normal tool. For the past eleven years they have been operating exclusively against soft and often highly profitable targets, while the discipline and self-sacrifice that was required for operating against hard military and police targets gradually melted away. They have turned into a kind of mafia, and Sinn Fein must break its ties with the IRA or face a bleak political future.

Sinn Fein has split five times in the past hundred years, and three times the split ended in bloodshed. Now it has to split again, and the possibility of bloodshed cannot be excluded this time either. But the chance of a lasting peace in Northern Ireland will be better if it takes the leap than if it does not.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The contradiction…faces”)

Catholics and Palestinians

22 October 2003

For ‘Catholics’, Read’Palestinians’

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s hard to guess which group would be angrier about being compared to the other, Israeli Jews or Northern Irish Protestants. The Islamist gunmen of Hamas would be outraged to hear themselves equated to the Catholic gunmen of the Irish Republican Army, and vice versa, too Yet the comparison is there to be made: the political and demographic situation of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland is very like that of the Palestinians in the occupied territories. And in Northern Ireland, the Catholics already sense that they are going to win.

There was political chaos in Northern Ireland last Tuesday (21 October). British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern had both flown into Belfast to preside over a ceremony that would mark the symbolic end of the long guerilla insurgency by the IRA in the British province. It’s over five years since the Good Friday Agreement ended all the shooting and bombing, but everyone is still in much need of ‘closure’. Only it didn’t quite happen.

There has been some unravelling of the peace process recently, with Protestants doubting that the IRA would ever really abandon its guns and the IRA leadership determined to do nothing that would signal military defeat or surrender. After a generation of direct rule from London democracy returned to Northern Ireland, but the elected assembly in which Catholic and Protestant parties uncomfortably shared power was suspended last year after the IRA was caught spying on government officials. So this occasion was meant to bind up all the wounds.

The event that would provide a symbolic end to the war was to be the third and largest act of ‘decommissioning’ of weapons by the IRA,. The day began well, with Tony Blair proclaiming a new election to the Northern Irish assembly on 28 November and Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (the IRA’s political front), vowing to “bring an end to conflict on our island, including physical force republicanism.”

But then Canadian General John de Chastelain, head of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, said that he had seen some more IRA weapons ‘put beyond use’ — but he wasn’t allowed to say when, or where, or how many weapons, or what proportion they were of the IRA’s remaining arsenal. The IRA was willing to give up some arms in the cause of peace, but it just couldn’t bear to let anybody see it publicly renounce its weapons after a century of romanticising the gunman as the ultimate Irish Catholic hero.

In the face of that act of childishness, David Trimble, head of the largest Protestant party in Northern Ireland, responded with one of his own and walked out, leaving Tony Blair to say helplessly that he wouldn’t have walked if he could only be told how many weapons the IRA had decommissioned. So everyone is in disarray, and even the November election and the restoration of democratic rule in Northern Ireland are now uncertain. Yet there is no chance that the province will slide back into war. Why?

Because the 2001 census revealed that Protestants, who were 63 percent of Northern Ireland’s population forty years ago, are now barely a majority: 53 percent of the province’s 1.5 million people and dropping fast. Catholics have risen from 35 to 44 percent, and will probably have a clear majority by 2010: there were 173,000 Catholic children in Northern Ireland’s schools last year, compared to only 144,000 Protestants. So the IRA no longer needs violence to end British rule; Sinn Fein can do it through electoral politics.

The British government will not resist that outcome, if it is achieved legitimately, because the British people lost interest in hanging onto the province long ago: according to a Guardian/ICM poll two years ago, 46 percent of Britons would prefer to see Northern Ireland merged with the Irish Republic, compared to only 21 percent who want to keep it in Britain. So of course Sinn Fein wants the assembly restored: nothing seems to stand between it and victory except time.

Now compare this situation with Israel and the occupied territories, where today there are 5.5 million Israeli Jews and 4.5 million Palestinians. Only one million of those Palestinians live in Israel proper, which is therefore guaranteed a permanent Jewish majority despite a much higher Palestinian birth-rate — but in ‘Greater Israel’ Palestinians will outnumber Israeli Jews as early as 2010. So you can have a Jewish, democratic Israel within the country’s pre-1967 borders, or a Greater Israel that is either Jewish, or democratic, but not both.

That was the original British mistake at the partition of Ireland in 1922. In being greedy about the borders of the new, Protestant Northern Ireland, it included hundreds of thousands of Catholics with a much higher birth-rate. So greater Northern Ireland could not forever be both Protestant and democratic; eventually it would have to choose. In fact, since the British government calls the shots and will not condone permanent suppression of Catholic rights, the choice will make itself. It’s just a matter of time.

Northern Ireland is twenty to thirty years ahead of Israel: carved out of the new Irish republic in 1925, whereas Israel was carved out of Palestine in 1947; plunged into a bloody 25-year guerilla war in 1969, whereas the intifada in Greater Israel only started three years ago. But both countries are travelling the same road, and both face the same choice sooner or later.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“The British…time”; and “That was…time”)

The IRA: Bungle in the Jungle

August 24, 2001

 The IRA: Bungle in the Jungle

By Gwynne Dyer

THE IRISH Republican Army is one of the world’s oldest and most serious revolutionary organisations, but it is also full of people who love the bogus romance of their calling. Consider Niall Connolly, who called himself ‘David Bracken’ on the forged passport he went to Colombia with. ‘David Bracken’ was the assassin in Frederick Forsyth’s novel ‘Day of the Jackal’.

Niall Connolly, according to the Cuban Foreign Ministry, has been the liaison officer in Havana of Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, since 1996. Indeed, it was Connolly who organised next month’s visit to Cuba by Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to meet Fidel Castro. But Connolly’s business in Colombia was not diplomacy. He travelled there with two other IRA men at the invitation of FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the Marxist guerrilla army that now controls almost a third of that country. Connolly’s travelling companions were James Monaghan and Martin McCauley, who have served Sinn Fein in open political posts but are also IRA specialists in explosives, mortars and rockets. Monaghan, indeed, is reckoned by British and Irish intelligence to be the IRA’s ‘chief engineer’, in charge of devising and producing its sophisticated arsenal of home-made weapons.

They travelled by circuitous routes from Dublin, they all used false names, and with a pathetic cover story about ‘sight-seeing’ they immediately flew south to the town of San Vicente, capital of the territory that the Colombian government has ceded to the guerrillas to facilitate the stalled peace talks between the two sides. They stayed five weeks in guerrilla-held territory, and were arrested when they re-emerged from the jungle and tried to fly out through Bogota.

An everyday story of simple guerrilla folk, you might think ­ but it has big international implications, for it may finally turn the United States authorities against the IRA.

FARC is Washington’s biggest worry in Latin America, both because it ‘taxes’ and partly controls the cocaine production in Colombia and adjacent countries, and because one day it might seize control of all Colombia, the Spanish-speaking world’s third-biggest country. The US government is funding a programme of military and civil aid called ‘Plan Colombia’ to stop it, and it does not take kindly to the IRA hanging out with FARC and giving it handy tips on bomb-making.

The US public has long seen the IRA in a friendlier light than other outfits with Marxist antecedents that blow people up, mainly because other Americans tend to see Ireland through the same rose-tinted glasses that the millions of Catholic Irish-Americans wear when they view the politics of their ancestral island. Private financial donations from the United States, tacitly allowed by the US government, have been crucial to the IRA’s three-decade campaign to drive the British out of Northern Ireland and force the Protestant majority there into a union with the Irish Republic. Losing that cash flow, and maybe even the quasi-diplomatic status that lets it talk to the US government, would be a grave loss for the organisation, but the US State Department is so cross about the Colombian caper that it is all at risk.

This all comes just as things were going rather well for the IRA. It had got nowhere with thirty years of bombs and shootings ­ British public opinion never broke and demanded that the troops be pulled out of Northern Ireland ­ but in the past couple of years its self-declared cease-fire has been yielding great dividends. The British government leaped at the chance to bring Sinn Fein into a ‘power-sharing’ government in Northern Ireland, and persuaded most of the Unionist (Protestant) political parties to join too.

However, Sinn Fein and the IRA have made adroit use of the ‘decommissioning’ issue (making the IRA’s large arsenal of guns and explosives unusable) to extract more and more concessions from London while making no definite commitment to disarm in return. By last month moderate Protestant politicians had become so frustrated and so isolated within their own community that they withdrew from the power-sharing government, bringing it down. This was excellent for the IRA, as it made the Protestants look like petulant spoilers and drove the British government to offer even further concessions in the hope of getting some solid promise of decommissioning from the IRA. But now this: IRA operatives training cocaine-smuggling Marxist Latin American revolutionaries in the techniques of urban guerrilla warfare (or terrorism’, as the victims tend to call it).

Why did they do it? Because they needed the money. The IRA has to finance its operations from illegal or at least invisible cash flows, and probably indirectly helps to finance Sinn Fein’s expensive above-ground political organisation as well. FARC, a rural-based organisation, wants a bigger presence in the cities, so it needs instruction in urban guerrilla techniques from people who are experts at that game ­ and all that cocaine money means it can pay handsomely. It was a match made in heaven ­ until it went terribly wrong.

But paradoxically, this deeply embarrassing incident for the IRA may save the peace process in Northern Ireland rather than dooming it. The IRA cannot win the war in Northern Ireland and does not really want to resume it, so it has long been looking for a face-saving way to end it. The power-sharing arrangements were that way, but the IRA’s recent tactical and PR victories over the Unionists were placing it at risk. The Colombian blunder will bring the IRA down a peg or two, and that may help to get the peace process back on the road.