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”)