No News On The Home Front, IRA Situation Improves

26 October 2001

By Stentor Danielson

Despite Vice President Dick Cheney’s assertions this week that we have those responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on the run, the counter-terrorism action initiated after September 11 has not yet shown a great deal in the way of successes. Though American bombers continue to pound Afghan targets, and special ground strike forces have been sent in to recover intelligence, the leaders of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban and the terrorist network al-Qaeda remain at large. Israeli-Palestinian violence, after abating during late-September anti-terrorism solidarity, has flared up again, as Israel launched massive military action in retaliation for the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavim Zeevi by Palestinian militants. The anthrax hysteria has been hijacked by low-tech terrorists sending out white powders that are frightening but biologically harmless. And the United States bombardment of Afghanistan has stoked anti-American sentiment in many Muslim countries, as people take the action to be an attack on Islam by the West.

This is not to say that the blame for these problems can be laid at the foot of American anti-terrorism policy, or that American intervention will not ultimately bring more benefits than harm. However, it does serve to contrast one far more positive development in the fight against terrorism around the world: The first disarmament by Northern Ireland’s militant Irish Republican Army (IRA), which was announced on Tuesday.

The issue of disarmament has been central to the struggles of the joint Catholic-Protestant government set up as a result of 1998’s Good Friday peace accord. Relations between Sinn Fein, the major Catholic party, and the Ulster Unionists, representing Protestants loyal to Great Britain, have been strained by the failure of the IRA (a wing of Sinn Fein) to give up its weapons. Pressure is now mounting on pro-British militias to follow suit.

Canadian General John de Chastelain, chairman of the disarmament commission, has confirmed that an undisclosed number of IRA firearms, ammunition and explosives have been put beyond use. Though no details of how the weapons were disposed of have been released, the disposal method is said to be more final than simply covering them with a concrete lid as has been suggested in the past.

This disarmament follows a summer which saw the bloodiest fighting since the Good Friday accord was signed. The Ulster Unionists had withdrawn from the coalition government in protest over the IRA’s failure to disarm. Both sides faced a Thursday deadline to make progress lest the fledgling government be scrapped. After the announcement of the disarmament, Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, who stepped down as leader of the new government this summer over the disarmament issue, stated his intention to bring his party back into the coalition.

The relation of these developments to events in New York and Afghanistan is that the global outcry against terrorism of all types has put added pressure on Northern Ireland to prove itself not to be a haven for people conceptually lumped with al-Qaeda.

The process was further helped by the fact that both sides are thoroughly European. They are thus more likely to see the response to September 11 from the "good people vs. terrorism" viewpoint that the United States presents. Elsewhere -- Israel and Palestine, for example -- people are quicker to question the U.S. narrative and see the conflict as dividing along different lines (the West vs. Islam, for example), weakening the force of President Bush’s "you are either for us or against us" rhetoric.

On a more practical note, the anti-terrorism reaction after September 11 has undermined the IRA’s financial situation. Dovish commentators were quick to ask whether the logic behind bombing the Taliban for bin Laden’s sins was going to extend to bombing Boston, as many Irish American residents of that city give aid to the Catholic cause in Northern Ireland. This specific targeting, along with the general desire of Americans to distance themselves from terrorism, has led many of Sinn Fein’s financial backers to reconsider their support.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams rejects the notion that the disarmament was precipitated by the attacks on the United States. He insisted, "The IRA is immune to pressure from any quarter except from its own base." This, it seems, is a face-saving measure. The IRA has long viewed disarmament as tantamount to surrender, so any suggestion that Catholic leaders were bullied into moving forward with the peace process would be anathema.

Of course, this is only a small step. Untold numbers of weapons remain in the hands of the IRA as well as smaller militia groups on both sides. Between submitting this commentary and publication Friday afternoon, "the Real IRA" (a hard-line pro-Irish militia that did not support the disarmament) could massacre 20 people in Belfast, sending the fragile new government crashing down. But Tuesday’s announcement is significant in being the first such action in Northern Ireland. It shows the confidence of the largest Catholic body in the new government. It reassured Britain enough that it withdrew some of the troops it had deployed to keep the peace.

It would be tempting to see the situation in Northern Ireland as a metaphor for other events. I could claim from it advice or moralization on, if not the bombardment of Afghanistan, at least the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, violence between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka or Russia’s war on rebels in Chechnya (who on Wednesday agreed to a meeting to discuss Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 24 ultimatum). However, that would be both disingenuous and premature. For now, I’m simply happy to see that some significant progress has been made in reducing violence in our world in the past month and a half.

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