Editorial from Irish Political Review, June 2003

Northern Ireland:—Fighting The Peace


Having failed to shatter, split or humiliate the Republican movement by means of incessant piecemeal demands that go beyond the scope, spirit or letter of the Belfast Agreement, the British Government has ‘staked’ all on the attempt to demoralise it with ‘revelations’ of intelligence penetration at a high level.

It is because it is convinced that the IRA is serious about the Peace Process that the Blair Government has allowed the ‘exposure’ of an alleged senior spy. It certainly could not afford to lose him otherwise.

It appears increasingly unlikely, however, that the man ‘exposed’ was working for Intelligence. He left active Republicanism 13 years ago and has since been working as a brickie, despite a bad back—a very tough way to earn a living in Northern Ireland, where bricklayers lay phenomenal amounts of bricks and blocks in a day’s work. This is not the lifestyle of a man amassing £80,000 per annum in a Gibraltar Bank Account. And, as Martin McGuinness says, it has not been the British practice to admit the identity of informers, even after their demise. No matter, there is even more mileage to be gained out of false allegations of informers in IRA ranks. As the virulently anti-national Sunday Independent gleefully crowed, IRA’s GHQ Riddled With Informers (18.5.03).

Its Jim Cusack explained that since 1981 Fr. Faul was warning youngsters, “they should not join the IRA because the people who were recruiting and vetting them… and who were to direct their activities, could be working for the army or police”.

(However, the revelation may yet haunt the British establishment. Even the SDLP and Denis Bradley are calling on the British Government to call off their Intelligence war on the Nationalist community (see Irish News 14.5.03).)

The way the British Government has been conducting the Peace Process demonstrates that, not only is it convinced that the IRA is genuine about the political road, but it believes that Republicans could not go to war again. Gambling on that, it has set aside the Belfast Agreement in favour of the private letter which Tony Blair gave the Ulster Unionist leader shortly before the Agreement Referendum was held in Northern Ireland. Secretary of State Paul Murphy told BBC NI’s Inside Politics of the new demands for ‘clarity’ the British Government is making to the IRA:—

“five years ago, when we were starting this particular process, there was room for more ambiguity, so that we could let the process settle down.

Now, of course, we are five years on, so we have to ensure that we are much clearer in our own minds as to precisely what these terms mean in ending that activity…” (26.4.03).

On RTE’s Questions And Answers (14.4.03), Garret FitzGerald put it more succinctly: the Belfast Agreement had been a “fudge” which was now being “clarified”. But the point about a fudge is that it is that. There is no definitive objective meaning to be drawn out of it. Its purpose is to allow various parties to interpret it in their own way and hope that contradictions will work themselves out in the course of events.

The nature of the Agreement ‘fudge’ was undermined by Tony Blair’s letter to the Unionists. It put in the public domain his version of the fudge. The non-Unionist parties to the Agreement erred in not doing likewise. Nevertheless, the standing of Blair’s letter is simply that of a private opinion. The operative ‘Constitution’ behind the devolution experiment in Northern Ireland remains the Belfast Agreement, endorsed by the popular votes. Blair’s letter derives its standing not from law, but from Power: the will of the two Governments to impose their definition of the ‘fudge’.

John Major’s Tory Government based its strategy on a belief that the IRA could not return to war. That rebounded on it. Blair is foolish to try it again. Even though Provisional ranks remain committed to peace, the ‘Real’ and ‘Continuity’ IRAs have recovered from the disruption caused by British agents provocateurs (notably in Omagh). They are mounting effective operations, week in, week out. And evidence of British bad faith over the Belfast Agreement can only swell their ranks.

One of the British objectives in forcing the Belfast Agreement on Unionism was to implicate the Republican movement in the Government of Northern Ireland, to narrow their horizons, and to soak up their energies in mundane provincial affairs.

This strategy was succeeding beyond all expectation, despite the 18-month delay in the start of executive devolution and the regular disruption of the governing process by a Unionism that could not see the larger picture. We cannot say why the strategy of ‘sucking in’ Republicanism was dropped. But clearly it has been. Possibly it was felt that, while there were some notable successes, rank and file Republicanism remained radical and untamed. Conversely, the SDLP must seem a very ‘safe’ party to the British, a party which possesses no capacity to ‘break the mould’ of politics, in the way that is inherent in Republicanism.

Another objective of the Agreement was to gain Ireland as an ally of nouveau Imperialism in international affairs. That, too, was succeeding. Again, that project has been endangered by the way the Executive was suspended on flimsy pretext last October and by the British ultimatum that the IRA adopt Blair’s letter in place of the Belfast Agreement as the price of Britain allowing a return to Constitutionalism. The Irish Government did not agree with the British decision for a second, indefinite, postponement of an election originally scheduled for 1st May 2003—but it did not dissent very vigorously.

However, a recent opinion poll in the Republic has shown the Government and ‘Teflon Bertie’ rapidly sinking in popularity. Undoubtedly there has been dissatisfaction with Government quiescence over the undermining of a hard-won ‘settlement’ in the North as well as broken election promises on the home front. Perhaps that is why Taoiseach Ahern has taken the momentous step of suggesting speaking rights In the Dail on Northern topics for member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. This move could sideline the Agreement, refocuss Northern Ireland politics from Belfast to Dublin. Its implica-tions are drawn out elsewhere in this magazine. It would be amazing if Ahern finds the courage to carry it through in the face of what will be strong British and Unionist opposition (no doubt, egged on by his Coalition partners, the Progres-sive Democrats). But, once that genie has been let out of the bottle, even by suggestion, can it be stuffed back in?

Republicans might prefer to look to the wider horizon offered by participation in the Dublin political scene, rather than engage in futile attempts to reconcile Unionism to a fair application of the Agreement of 1998.

Looking back over the five years since the Belfast Agreement was signed, it is clear that, while the non-Unionist protagonists agreed it in good faith, Unionism and the British Government did not. (The Democratic Unionist Party, to its credit, preferred not to agree to it, rather than do so in bad faith.) Since its first Ceasefire, Republicanism has done its utmost to reassure Unionism of its exclusive commitment to the political process. This followed on its implicit acceptance of Unionism as a second Irish nation with which a modus vivendi had to be established. The old idea of Unionism as a colon element, or as a British fifth column, had entirely disappeared. Republicanism had undergone a cultural revolution and was responding to Unionist petulance over new political developments with considerable maturity. Time after time, the Republican constituency ‘stretched’ itself to reassure Unionists that it remained committed to a majority decision within the 6 Counties with regard to a future United Ireland.

Indeed, the commitment to making the Belfast Agreement work meant that the Adams leadership has been on the defensive in the face of disruption to the workings of the Agreement. The Ulster Unionist Party was able to act offensively because it had no such commitment.

One of the Unionist demands in the recent negotiations to re-instate the Executive has been that there be a mechanism for ‘sanctioning’ Republicans for alleged breaches of the Agreement. But it is clear that the UUP itself has been able to act disruptively because there were no sanctions on its breaking explicit provisions in the Agreement. It demands that Republicans be punished for breaking what they see as implicit in the Agreement, whilst feeling free to break its letter and its spirit itself.

The fact that the British Government has tolerated and encouraged Unionist flouting of the Agreement demonstrates that it was not just Trimble who accepted the Agreement in bad faith: the British Government too saw it as a starting point for demoralising Republicanism, rather than as a means of establishing an evolutionary governance to settle a centuries-old antagonism.

It is not only that Blair started clarifying the ‘fudge’ to Unionist advantage when the ink was barely dry on the document. That could be excused as a piece of real-politik, a politically dishonest attempt to shore up Unionist popular support for the Agreement in the face of carping at it by the Unionist tendency which had supposedly embraced it..

The whole stance of the British Government over the past five years shows that Blair signed the Agreement in bad faith. It had to be so because, in order for it to work, there had to be stick as well as the lavish carrots constituted by the Assembly, the devolved Executive and lavish funds for the politicos.

The British Government allowed the Unionists to prevent the Agreement coming into force for a year and a half and to breach its terms with impunity. The UUP could flout the deal because there was never a worse option on offer. The governing apparatus under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, which allowed the Irish Government a voice in the administration of Northern Ireland, had been dismantled when the Agreement was signed. Tony Blair could easily have threatened to re-introduce it in an enhanced form if those who agreed the deal failed to abide by its terms. He did not do so, allowing Trimble to play whatever games he liked with the Agreement.

But it was not only in what Britain failed to do that it has demonstrated that the Belfast Agreement was a means to an end quite different to its ostensible objects. It was actually what it did.

The Northern Ireland security apparatus was left unreconstructed long after the inception of an Agreement pledged to its reform. Security force/Loyalist paramilitary collusion continued unabated despite years of IRA Ceasefire, which meant that non-Republicans exposing the collusion—like solicitor Rosemary Nelson (killed in March 1999) and journalist Martin O’ Hagan (killed in September 2000)—could be picked off with impunity.

Furthermore, a series of initiatives were embarked upon to discredit Republicanism. Three major ‘dirty tricks’ spring to mind immediately: Columbia (Summer 2001), Castlereagh (March 2002), and the ‘Stormont Spy-ring’ (Autumn 2002).

It has been reported that British security personnel were seen in Columbia shortly before three Republicans were arrested and charged with giving military training to FARC guerillas. There can be little doubt that the prosecution would not have been undertaken without British official encouragement. The legal proceedings were prejudged by the media and used by Unionism to ‘show’ that the IRA Ceasefire was not genuine.

Republican response has been entirely defensive, intent only on showing that the men were innocent of the charges against them. However, the foreign policy of Republicanism was never part of the Belfast Agreement. Why should it not assist in ousting one of the worst regimes in Latin America? It is an accepted part of international practice that regimes that maintain themselves outside the rule of law may be opposed by the same means. As a matter of fact, it is true that the charges against the Columbia Three were trumped up but, by concentrating on proving that point, Republicans were conceding that their foreign policy fell within the scope of the Belfast Agreement. Moreover, even if they were willing to include their stance to international affairs within the Agreement, a matter not expressly covered, they could still have defended their right to support a just cause in any country by appropriate means. By sticking to the single policy of proving that the Columbia Three were innocent, they weakened their position.

The second incident was ‘Castlereagh’. It was the general assumption that the theft of intelligence material from this fortified interrogation centre was part of the ongoing ‘dirty war’ between RUC traditionalists and other parts of the security apparatus—and the then Chief Constable, Ronnie Flanagan, did not rule out this possibility. The incident was similar in kind to the obstruction encountered by the Stevens team (the British police team investigating security force criminality). Instead of adding the incident to the Stevens remit for investigation, however, John Reid brought in a ‘spook’ (Sir John Chilcot) to head a second investi-gation, alongside the police inquiry under Detective Chief Superintendent Phil Wright. Eighteen months later, like so many other incidents involving the Crown, the case remains unsolved. But the unsubstantiated leak made by Reid’s spook that the IRA was responsible for the break-in has been made the operative explanation for what happened. It is constantly averred as a fact by Unionism to justify its non-commitment to the Agreement. Moreover, the life of an American-Irish chef, who worked briefly at the station-and who received a commendation for service beyond the call of duty by former Chief Constable Ronnie Flanagan-has been ruined. This, despite the fact that police investigators allowed him to return to the United States as he had long planned and despite the fact that there has been no Extradition Warrant for his arrest. Never-the-less, the IRA has been tried and found guilty in the State-manipulated court of ‘public opinion’ with not a shred of evidence.

John Reid continued the dirty propa-ganda war against Republicans with the ‘Stormont Spy Ring’ episode. Over six months later no substantive charges have been brought. A minor player, a porter, was undoubtedly passing on information. But the Crown had been aware of his activities for over a year when it was decided to create an incident to further increase pressure on Republicans. The matter was so mismanaged, however, that it led to the removal of John Reid as Secretary of State. The British Government had made the mistake of appointing a ‘straight’ policeman from England as Chief Constable (Hugh Orde). He had been a member of the Stevens team and promised on his appointment that there would be no more ‘political’ policing in Northern Ireland-meaning that the law would be enforced without fear or favour. The Stormont ‘Spy Ring’ police raid was staged by the Northern Ireland Office, however, as a very political piece of policing, with the media tipped off. As there was no substance to the Spy Ring allegation, the ploy backfired to an extent.

There can be little doubt that Orde threatened to resign over the matter and that is why Blair had to move Reid. Never-theless, Unionists continue to claim that there was an IRA Spy Ring operating in Stormont, even though there has not been a single substantive charge.

(It now emerges that the security apparatus was spying, not only on Martin McGuinness in his capacity of Minister of Education, but on Secretary of State Marjorie Mowlem too. Transcripts of bugged conversations have appeared in a recent book by the long-time RUC mouth-piece, Liam Clarke. But curiously we don’t see any furore about the real Spy-Ring which operates in the Unionist interest!)

The ‘Spy Ring’ episode was made the occasion for yet another suspension of the Executive. Tony Blair called SDLP leader Mark Durkan into Downing Street and asked him whether he would share power with the Unionists in a devolved administration. Republicans have made nothing of this revelation. But it represented an open abrogation of the Belfast Agreement by the British Government. Republicans could have made this serious breach of faith an occasion for setting their own terms for allowing the Belfast Agreement insitutions to be revived.

A further episode in the British offensive strategy was the ‘cooking’ of the population census returns at the turn of the year. While other parts of the Census were published, the Catholic/Protestant numbers were held back. At issue was the large number of people, 14%, who did not describe themselves as Protestants or Catholics. Given the finely-balanced numbers of the two communities, the matter was of some consequence. In the event, 7% of the non-respondents were allocated to the Protestant community and 4% to the Catholic. This was despite the fact that many Catholics in Protestant areas would not have felt happy identifying themselvesas such to Protestant form-collectors. In the Census 46% of the respondents described themselves as Protestant and 40% as Catholics, a difference of 6%. After statisticians allocated those who had ignored the religious question, the final figures were declared to be 53% Protestant and 44% Catholics, a difference of 9%. The pundits declared that it would take 20 years at least for the figures to converge. The manipulation meant that Republicans, who had counted on Catholic population growth to facilitate change, were dispirited, while Unionists felt a corresponding release from pressure to compromise.

Up to then, backing the Belfast Agreement had its attractions for those Unionists for whom simple ‘democracy’ lost its appeal as their opponents gained the majority. It provided safeguards for minorities which could be expected to continue in the face of other Constitutional change. With the demographic factor put off for perhaps a generation, Unionists felt under less pressure to compromise. There has been a significant hardening of Unionist opinion against implementation of the Agreement since these figures became known. With the next Census ten years away, the manipulation of the figures is not likely to rebound in the imminent future.

The behaviour of the British Government over the past five years becomes more explicable if the past records of British Governments in peace deals is examined. There was the Versailles Treaty, in which an Armistice [i.e. Truce or Ceasefire] was treated by the Allies as a Surrender as soon as Germany was disarmed. And, closer to home, there was the Anglo-Irish ‘Treaty’ of 1922. De Valera believed then that a deal more acceptable to Republicans, External Association, could have been won: a deal which could have prevented a damaging split and civil war. But de Valera was wrong: British strategy was to incorporate a sticking point into any deal—a Constitutional feature which simply could not be accepted by a movement acting on the basis of ideals. Acting on this principle in 1998, Downing Street miscalculated because it failed to understand that Northern Republicanism was based on practical grievances of a misgoverned community, rather on the idealist vision which inspired the movement on the rest of the island.

Something of the British strategy is conveyed by the following assessment, by an Irish News commentator:

“Poachers can become game-keepers but they can’t continue to poach and must stick to the rules. Their job is to apprehend other poachers, confiscate ill-gotten gains and impound illegal weapons…”

These words, written of Republicans by Roy Garland of the Progressive Unionist Party, go to the heart of the crux at which the ‘Peace Process’ now stands. The aim of the Belfast Agreement was to split Republicans and turn some of the poachers into gamekeepers who would take out the rest and so weaken the whole.

Michael Collins was aware of the British strategy in 1922. He did his utmost to prevent a republican split, realising that a united movement could more easily build on the concessions won at the Conference Table. Collins failed. However, the present generation of Republicans appears to understand the importance of maintaining unity and coherence. As Garland put it, Republicans “are trying to have their cake and eat it”.

The reason for the various dirty tricks—now trumped by the dirtiest trick of all, the raising of the Informer bogy—was to force the leadership into concessions that would split or demoralise their base. But perhaps Britain needs to take another look at history. Withholding Home Rule in 1912 aborted the scheme of having Ireland as a junior partner in the Empire. The Treaty eventually brought a skilled pragmatic republican leadership to power in the Free State. What will the attempt to wreck Northern Republicanism produce?


Northern Ireland: Fighting The Peace.

The James Connolly Legacy.
Pat Murphy

Bush Breaks The Rules—Globalists Break Their Pencils!
Sean McGouran

Northern Representatives To Speak In The Dail—Says Ahern.
Joe Keenan

Their Hearts At Home In Old [Non-Revised] Ireland?
Sean McGouran

An Cor Tuathail: There Are Two Chieftains In Ireland.
Giolla Críost Brúilingeach.
(Compiled by Pat Muldowney)

The Labour Theory Of Value And Surplus Value.
John Martin

Zimbabwe: A View From Northern Ireland: Passchendale For Slow Learners.
Joe Keenan

Northern Ireland: "We Are Being Misled By Government Over Water Service 'Reform'.
Michael Robinson

The Stickies And Iraq—A Correction.

Some Anti-German History.
Sean McGouran

Northern Ireland News Digest.
April/May 2003

Labour Comment, edited by Pat Maloney:
William Thompson School

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