The Cadogan Group

Subtitle

Decommissioning

BOOKS


DECOMMISSIONING

The Cadogan Group, January 1996

 

Introductions

The idea of an external body or commission to help with the arms problem in post-cease-fire Northern Ireland first emerged as a suggested means of making it easier for the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries to give up illegally held weapons and explosives. To hand them over to the police or military authorities in Northern Ireland, or even in the Irish Republic, it was recognised, could present both symbolic and practical difficulties. A hand-over of weapons to the authorities in Northern Ireland would, it was felt, resemble too closely an explicit act of surrender by the IRA to the forces it had been fighting against for 25 years. As the actual weapons handed over could provide forensic evidence relating to specific acts of violence, this could increase the chances of formal charges being brought, and therefore be a further deterrent to handing in weapons to the authorities in Northern Ireland.

In those circumstances it was suggested by some that the availability of an external agency, independent of both governments, to whom the arms could be delivered would help overcome both the symbolic and the practical obstacles. Behind this approach lay an assumption that the IRA had indeed embarked upon a permanent cease-fire and was not reserving the option of returning to violence if the ‘peace process’ failed to meet its expectations.

Since then the IRA cease-fire has held, at least as far as bombing and widespread use of firearms are concerned. This has enabled the British Government to make ‘a working assumption’ that the cease-fire is permanent, in which circumstance it has felt able to embark upon preliminary bi-lateral talks with Sinn Fein, as representative of Republicanism, and also as interlocutor for the IRA. The Irish Government has fully accepted that the cease-fire is permanent, that Sinn Fein has effectively renounced violence as required by the Downing Street Declaration, and that all-party talks should commence, without a prior giving-up of illegally held arms and explosives.

Over the period of the cease-fire the IRA has stated unequivocally that it will not give up any arms prior to all-party talks. The British Government has continued to insist that at least a start must be made to the ‘decommissioning’ of IRA arms before all-party talks begin. The political representatives of the majority unionist population in Northern Ireland have made it clear they will not participate in all-party talks with Sinn Fein until the paramilitary arms have been given up.

It is to help break this somewhat more complex impasse that the International Body has been called into existence. Its mandate is not just to be a neutral recipient of decommissioned arms, but to ‘to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue’ (paragraph 5 of the Downing Street communiqué), and to ‘...report on the arrangements necessary for the removal from the political equation of arms silenced by virtue of the welcome decisions taken last summer and autumn by those organisations that previously supported the use of arms for political purposes’ (paragraph 6), and in particular ‘...to identify and advise on a suitable and acceptable method for full and verifiable decommissioning; and report whether there is a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve that’ (paragraph 7).

Despite the cumbersome language, it would seem clear that the two governments are referring throughout to the illegally held arms of the paramilitary groups, and that both governments believe that such arms should be ‘decommissioned’. The mandate to the International Body in the Downing Street communiqué does not refer to the crucial question of when the arms must be ‘decommissioned’, but that has become the nub of the ‘decommissioning issue’ in paragraph 5, on which the Body is asked to provide ‘an independent assessment’. The Irish and British Governments differ starkly on the ‘when’ of decommissioning, and also on whether or not the International Body has a mandate to discuss the ‘when’. Nevertheless the setting up of the International Body has at least guaranteed the ‘peace process’ another three or four months of life.

 

Expectations

What is it expected to do? On one side there is certainly hope that a report from an independent body of international standing to the effect that no terrorist group with minority support can reasonably expect to be represented in political talks with larger, democratic parties and with legitimate governments while it still retains the weapons of terrorism, would help bring the IRA to confront reality. Such a report, some believe, would make it easier for the Sinn Fein/IRA leadership to confront both its own theology - that the IRA never gives up its arms - and the possible reluctance of the membership to follow the leadership..

On the other hand there are clearly those who hope the Body will produce a form of words which leaves open the possibility that all-party talks could indeed begin without a prior act of decommissioning if the IRA make a solemn commitment not to resort to violence, and undertake to decommission in parallel with the talks process. Some such formula would undoubtedly satisfy the Dublin Government and the SDLP, and, some say, might just be acceptable to London. It would almost certainly be rejected by the unionist parties, who would refuse to join talks on such a basis; but there are those who would argue that the only hope of medium to long-term progress in Northern Ireland is to exert maximum political pressure on unionism. In these projected circumstances, unionists would be dangerously isolated before world opinion as the only obstacle to peace.

In deciding between those two broad options, or in seeking another way, what arguments should the International Body take on board?

 

Arguments

Two of the most common justifications put forward in support of talks before the giving up of arms must be challenged. The first is that in the history of Irish militant nationalism, the IRA has nevergiven up its arms, and that it is naive to believe it can be persuaded to do so now. This is a fundamental point, for Sinn Fein/IRA have continued to assert that they embody the Irish Republic proclaimed in 1916, that their arms are therefore the legitimate arms of that ‘state’, and that the decommissioning of those arms can only be part of a general disarmament involving all the forces involved in conflict, that is including those of the British Government. The second argument to be challenged is that Northern Ireland is similar to other situations of major conflict around the world, notably South Africa and Israel/Palestine, where ‘conflict resolution’ processes have led to peace, and that there are clear precedents to follow. Here again the Republicans’ claim to represent a legitimate or at least embryonic state is fundamental. But this is a claim which has no foundation in law, and one which has been consistently rejected by the elected and universally recognised democratic Governments of both the United Kingdom and Ireland for more than 70 years, and one which has been unequivocally rejected at the polls by the citizens of both parts of Ireland.

In popular debate this bogus claim to legitimacy translates itself into the simple assertion that the IRA has never in the past given up its arms, and never will. In the war for Irish independence earlier this century De Valera was invited to London for talks with the British Government in mid-1921before the armed struggle he was leading was suspended, and that those talks continued and were concluded with no surrender of illegal arms. But De Valera was invited to London specifically as ‘the chosen leader of the great majority in Southern Ireland’ - Sinn Fein, of which he was President, had won the vast majority of seats in that area in the 1918 election. Sinn Fein today has no such mandate.

Since 1921 the IRA has periodically returned to violence, challenging the authority of the United Kingdom Government in Northern Ireland, and of the Dublin Government in first the Irish Free State and then in the Irish Republic. On no occasion has either government condoned the retention of illegally held weapons by the IRA, and on no occasion has either Government brought the political representatives of the IRA into the political process. The point is best illustrated by the exchange of messages between De Valera, President of Sinn Fein and leader of the insurgent forces, and the head of the Free State Government, William Cosgrave, at the end of the Civil War in the Free State in mid-1923.

After ordering the cease-fire De Valera, through intermediaries, asked for a conference between himself and the Government with a view to discussing the conditions of peace. The Government reply was:

All political action within the country should be based on a recognition by every party in the State of the following principles of order:

(a) that all political issues, whether now existing or in the future arising, shall be decided by the majority vote of the elected representatives of the people:

(b) as a corollary to (a) that the people are entitled to have all lethal weapons within the country in the effective custody or control of the Executive Government responsible to the people through their representatives.

The acceptance of these principles and practical compliance with (b) by the surrender of arms to be the preliminary condition for the release of prisoners, who shall be required to subscribe individually to (a) and (b).

De Valera sought further concessions, but these were refused, and a short time later he declared that the continuance of the struggle in arms was unwise. The IRA was told to dump its arms. The arms were indeed dumped, never to be used again by that element of the Republican movement which followed De Valera.

This early refusal by the Irish state to accept the analysis of the situation as presented by the IRA and its political representatives, but rather to insist on full recognition of legitimate authority, particularly by the surrender of illegally held arms, helped establish democratic rule at a critical time. A similarly firm line, refusing to treat the IRA and its activities as anything other than subversive, characterised the attitude of subsequent Dublin Governments up to the present.

 

Parallels

The parallels between 1923 and now are striking. One major difference, however, is that at that time De Valera was no minor figure in a fringe minority group. He had been the great national leader in the fight for independence little more than a year earlier, and he still commanded widespread support in the country. By contrast the current Sinn Finn has been repeatedly rejected by the electorates north and south, in particular by the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, and today it commands only fringe support in the island as a whole.

It is surprising then that the Irish Government today is urging generosity towards the IRA, to the extent that it be allowed to hold onto its illegal arms for a time at least. The justification for such a stance would seem to be the conviction that there is now, for the first time perhaps, a real chance of taking the cult of ‘armed struggle’ out of Irish nationalism, of finally eradicating the myth that the Republic of 1916 still exists, and that its defence justifies, indeed glorifies any bloodshed.

Such a view is based on the belief which seems to exist on the nationalist side that it is now possible to achieve what John Hume calls an ‘agreed Ireland’, that is a political or constitutional settlement which will largely satisfy both nationalism and unionism, and that the Republican tradition could be tied into full acceptance of this new arrangement. Such an outcome acceptable to both sides would indeed be greatly to be welcomed.

Those holding this view on the nationalist side, to judge from their comments and proposals, clearly envisage a radical revision of the partition settlement of 1921 in order to satisfy their aspirations. Yet the consent principle means - or would seem to mean - that there can be no change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland without the majority so desiring. As there is no indication that such consent is ever likely to emerge, it is difficult to see how the aspirations even of main-stream nationalism can be satisfied, let alone the hopes of those who protest that nothing but a sovereign independent Republic will suffice.

Nevertheless it is possible to see nationalists, even extreme nationalists, ready to accept some modest arrangement which could be labelled an ‘agreed Ireland’ on the assumption that it is at least movement in the right direction. But this is precisely the point when danger signals ring loudest as regards continuing efforts to fudge the question of illegally held arms. Unionists might be tempted to consider a modestly radical solution, but only if it clearly was a settlement and not a staging post on the way to something more palatable to nationalists. Indeed the absolutely crucial point about the settlement of the arms question is the message it sends out - both as regards what has been happening in Ireland over the past 25 years, and as to what is likely to happen in the future.

In 1923 the Cosgrave Government’s resolute stance on not negotiating peace terms with De Valera was based on the vital necessity of reaffirming the democratic process, and rejecting the use of armed force to effect political solutions. Cosgrave deemed it worth risking continued warfare in order to assert that the De Valera side in the Civil War had had no legitimacy, and that appeals to the Republic of 1916 were meaningless in the face of the will of the democratic majority. There had to be acceptance of democratic authority, both then and in any future disagreement. The crucial test was the surrender of illegally held arms.

 

Interpretations

In essence, since the early 1970s the IRA has been waging a subversive terrorist war against the United Kingdom state, and, less actively, against the Irish state. It has been doing this with the support of a small minority of the population - one third of one per cent of the population of the United Kingdom, perhaps less than five per cent of the population of the island, and at most 12 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland. Both Governments have repeatedly denounced the Republican campaign as terrorism; that campaign has led directly or indirectly to more than 3,000 deaths, to the destruction of cities and towns around Northern Ireland and to considerable damage to the economies of North and South. Both Governments have frequently reasserted their determination never to give in to terrorism.

In November 1988 the Northern nationalist leader John Hume told his party’s annual conference that ‘There is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life’, and went on to add ‘My challenge to any of those people in Ireland, North or South, who regard themselves as Republicans is...lay down your arms, once and for all.’ On future negotiations, he said, ‘...there should be no place at this table for any party if it is either using force, or reserving the right to use force if they do not get their way.’

At Oxford in May 1994 the then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds declared: ‘As I and John Hume have said...there is no valid excuse or justification for continued violence of any kind......They (Sinn Fein) must be continuously challenged to explain the failure of armed struggle over twenty-five years to advance by one whit the cause of a united Ireland.’

In September 1994, after the IRA cease-fire, Sir Patrick Mayhew said in Comber: ‘The security forces are utterly resolute in their determination to uphold the rule of law against the evil of terrorism. Their will to win is in no way diminished...There has been no diminution of the police and army’s determination relentlessly to pursue terrorists and all those involved in criminal activity...They will continue to do so...They do so with my full support.’

In December 1993 Dick Spring, Minister for Foreign Affairs, told the Dail with reference to the Downing Street Declaration and its negotiation that :

Questions were raised on how to determine a permanent cessation of violence. We are talking about the handing up or arms and are insisting that it would not be simply a temporary cessation of violence to see what the political process offers. There can be no equivocation in relation to the determination of both Governments in that regard.

  

Overtones

All these statements from Dublin and London were in line with the strong position taken towards IRA subversion over the past half century. Yet in the past year there has been a marked change of tone, particularly in Dublin. In his address to the UN General Assembly in September Mr Spring said that on the question of arms his Government was seeking to avoid as far as possible ‘symbolic overtones of surrender, or of one-sided admission of guilt’. In Northern Ireland, he said, concepts of victory and defeat would never offer a solution. Yet little more than a year earlier the head of the Government of which Mr Spring was a member, Mr Reynolds, was insisting that Sinn Fein must be continuously challenged to ‘explain the failure of their armed struggle’.

Also in New York, in October, John Bruton said everyone should get the arms issue back into proportion. ‘It is a problem, but it is not the only one. Let us look for trade-offs across the whole agenda - that is the way to do business.’ Here was seemingly open advocacy of offering political concessions in return for the surrender of illegally held arms. Yet in 1988 the leader of northern nationalism, John Hume, with the full support of Dublin, had been declaring that the challenge to the IRA must be ‘Lay down your arms, once and for all’.

This change of tune among nationalists hitherto loud in their condemnation of the IRA and its armed struggle is remarkable. Even London has changed tone if not tune, and Sir Patrick Mayhew no longer talks of ‘the will to win’ in the fight against the IRA. The explanation, presumably, lies in an overriding concern to preserve the ‘peace process’, now seen to be threatened by the refusal of Sinn Fein to countenance any IRA ‘decommissioning’ and by the IRA’s own public declaration that it will never give up its arms and that to suggest it should is ludicrous.

It seems that Mr Bruton and Mr Spring believe that the IRA will never again have recourse to arms, even though they refuse to give them up. Mr Bruton said so in his New York speech. Yet is there sufficient basis for such a belief? In New York Mr Bruton spoke of the ‘virtual absence of violence’ over the past year. The insertion of the word virtual was presumably a gesture to those who still protest vigorously about IRA ‘punishment beatings’. Outside the strongly Republican areas in Northern Ireland where these beatings take place it is easy to regard them as minor incidents; violent yes, but not usually in the same category as the bombings and shootings which have now stopped. Yet they are a crucial element in assessing how far Sinn Fein has established a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods, as required by the Downing Street Declaration, and the extent to which the IRA has gone out of business. The beatings - and there have also been fatal shootings for which the IRA is presumed to have been responsible - are not random instances of thuggery, but the assertion by force of the IRA of its authority over a neighbourhood. This is the continuation at local level of the use of terrorism to impose control by means of violence; it is another manifestation of Sinn Fein’s spurious claim to be exercising legitimate authority in the name of the Irish Republic. It is arguably a truer measure of the nature of Republicanism than any number of speeches and articles by Sinn Fein leaders.

 

Pragmatism

British policy towards Sinn Fein/IRA, on the other hand, has evolved rather than changed dramatically. Successive governments have pursued a pragmatic and at times erratic course. The pragmatism is seen in departures from normal democratic practice. The most important of these was to allow Sinn Fein, a party publicly supporting an active armed revolt against the State, to contest elections alongside constitutional parties. This piece of pragmatism was carried to the length of allowing elected Sinn Fein members to sit on the local councils of towns and cities which were being destroyed, and whose citizens were being murdered by the military wing of that same party. Westminster Mps were saved from a similarly difficult situation by the abstention of elected Sinn Fein representatives.

The sources of British Government pragmatism are clear. Faced with a military enemy which has proved difficult to defeat, the pragmatic course is to negotiate. The policy has been to suck Sinn Fein into democratic politics and to appease constitutional nationalism with money, position and political gains, including notably the Anglo-Irish Agreement. All this is based on the idea of conciliation. Through offering economic prosperity and a degree of political compromise it is hoped that all sides will be conciliated. The practical problem is to shepherd all parties to sit down and discuss, and eventually to agree. The refusal of Sinn Fein to reject violence and to lay down the IRA’s arms is the current bottleneck in this progression to a final settlement. The International Body is the chosen means of the two Governments to get round this latest impasse.

The second Sinn Fein/IRA argument which needs to be challenged, and which also seems to be gaining currency among constitutional nationalists and others, is the assertion that Northern Ireland is somehow like South Africa, or the Middle East, and that patterns of ‘conflict resolution’ established there provide precedents for Northern Ireland. Not the least cited of these is the fact that neither the ANC nor the PLO was required to surrender its arms as a precondition for negotiation.

Yet there are no valid parallels between Northern Ireland and either of the two conflicts referred to. In South Africa the minority white government negotiated with Nelson Mandela, the representative of the great majority of the people of South Africa. In the Middle East the Israeli Government negotiated with Yasser Arafat who was also the representative of the great majority of the people of Palestine. In both instances there had been a clear denial of democracy. In Northern Ireland Mr Adams represents only the minority of a minority. His importance rests not upon the worth of his cause nor on his popular support, but on the ability of the IRA over two decades to wage a terrorist war. All citizens in Northern Ireland enjoy, and have enjoyed, full democratic rights. The present constitutional arrangement, against which Sinn Fein/IRA have been conducting their terrorist campaign has the support of a clear democratic majority in Northern Ireland.

In making these connections Sinn Fein/IRA is transparently seeking to associate itself with ‘correct’ causes which had general support in the western world, and indeed were specifically endorsed by the United Nations. But as John Hume said in 1988, there is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland that justifies the taking of a single life. More than 3,000 lives have been taken, not as part of a freedom struggle, but in the course of a fascist-like attempt to impose by terrorism the will of a small minority upon a democratic majority.

There is another sense in which supposed parallels with South Africa and the Middle East are cited to distort the analysis of the situation here. Shortly before he died, Mr Brian Lenihan, former Irish Foreign Minister, justified allowing the IRA to retain its arms because, he said, we were in a ‘post-revolutionary situation’. Other commentators have used the phrase ‘entirely new situation’. Mr Lenihan did not explain just where the revolution had happened nor whom or what had been overthrown. The basic problem in Northern Ireland remains - a minority wishes to remove the province from the United Kingdom and attach it to an Irish Republic, while a substantial majority wishes to remain as they are.

Perhaps In that regard alone, the Northern Ireland problem can be equated with others elsewhere in the world - it is, in theory at least, a dispute about a boundary. Such disputes have frequently been settled by force in the past, and still are today. The independent Irish state, and its boundary with the United Kingdom, were established following armed struggle earlier this century. But a body of international law and practice has evolved which resolutely rejects the alteration of any boundary other than by peaceful means. In Ireland the only group which rejects this international consensus is Sinn Fein/IRA.

The current drive to find an agreed solution to the long-standing political argument between unionism and nationalism in Northern Ireland should not lead to the conclusion that the violence of the past 25 years has been a communal conflict. The unionist community has not been fighting the nationalist one, Catholics have not been fighting Protestants - indeed the violence by the paramilitary groups has been generally and widely condemned by large majorities in both communities.

In reality what has happened is that the IRA has declared a cessation of its terrorist actions and Sinn Fein has said it is now committed to the normal political process. Neither Sinn Fein nor the IRA has renounced violence in the sense of saying its use in pursuit of political ends is wrong and unacceptable. They have not admitted the failure of their armed struggle, let alone the inadmissibility of the use of violence to thwart the democratic process.

The greatest threat to the ‘peace process’ may well lie in this blurring of the history of the past 25 years. The IRA called its cease-fire, not because it felt it had been defeated, but because it believed - or had been persuaded - that it could gain more from that point on by political means than it could by further armed struggle. Nothing that has been said by Sinn Fein or the IRA since the cease-fire has indicated a belief that violence is wrong or unjustified. IRA leaders argue it was their campaign of violence which brought the two governments to the verge of a re-negotiation of the whole partition settlement.

We are in danger of endorsing the Sinn Fein/IRA view that violence worked. In the context of the history of Irish Republicanism that is an extremely dangerous distortion of reality. There have already been vague threats that if the ‘peace process’ stalls and Sinn Fein do not get into all-party talks, there will be ‘blood on the streets’. It is partly in response to those threats that such strenuous efforts are being made to fudge the arms issue. But what happens if Sinn Fein does get into all-party talks, with the IRA still in possession of arms? It is unlikely in the extreme that any agreement could emerge from such all-party talks that would be acceptable to Sinn Fein. At some point the lesson to Sinn Fein/IRA would be inescapable - armed struggle got us to this table, now we are blocked by politics, we must therefore return to armed struggle.

Seeking to prolong the peace process by fudging the issue of illegally held terrorist arms may do no more than postpone a return to violence. At the same time the current concern to keep the process going by making verbal or other concessions to Sinn Fein/IRA, by appearing to accept even in part their own view of themselves and of the past 25 years, may well be achieving the worst of all possible results - a strengthening of the violent tradition in Irish nationalism, a sanctifying of the ‘struggle’.

It is surely time to press Mr Reynolds’ challenge on Sinn Fein/IRA to explain the failure of their armed struggle, and not just to explain it, but to face the reality that it did indeed fail. Diplomacy may argue that the current Sinn Fein leadership must not be forced into a public surrender, but if there is no acknowledged victory for democracy and no visible defeat for terrorism, then there is unlikely to be peace or stability.

The very fact that the IRA has never in the past given up its arms makes the giving up of those arms now the vital, essential, affirmation that recourse to violence has been abandoned. Now is the time for Republicans to respond to John Hume’s 1988 challenge, and lay down their arms, once and for all. The International Body should not do a disservice to peace by assisting them to evade that challenge.

 

Conclusion

During the period of violent conflict in Northern Ireland over the past two decades it was the frequently asserted view of the two governments, of all the democratic parties and of the great majority of the people of both parts of the island that no circumstance existed within Northern Ireland which justified resort to arms by any disaffected group. Equally there is no circumstance now which can justify any such group retaining control of illegally held arms.

  • There is no denial of democracy in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom because of the clearly and freely expressed wish of a majority of its people.
  • The use of armed force to pursue political aims has been denounced by the leaders of the nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland, and by the two governments.
  • No democratic political leader can be expected to enter into general political negotiations on an equal basis with representatives of a minority group with a record of terrorist activity, while that group retains illegal arms. There is no precedent in the democratic world for such a procedure.

Paramilitary groups are not being asked to surrender their arms to the authorities, but to surrender their belief in violence to the democratic process. The proof of this change of mind must be a ‘decommissioning’ of illegally held arms.