- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2000


The recent announcement that the Provisional IRA has permitted two international observers Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Martti Ahtisaari of Finland to inspect a few of its clandestine arms dumps in the Republic of Ireland has sparked a transatlantic flare-up of enthusiasm for the peace process in Northern Ireland.
But conditions in Northern Ireland are not as rosy as they may appear. Far from the glare of the international spotlight, at least six private armies still stalk the urban back streets and rural lanes of Ulster. These paramilitary gangs include the Provisional IRA, republican splinter groups and various loyalist organizations such as the Ulster Freedom Fighters, whose members, led by the convicted terrorist Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, recently made a bravura show of strength at Drumcree in support of the members of the Orange Order, which had been banned from marching down the Garvaghy Road. Ominously, these mobs show no signs of either substantively decommissioning their arsenals or disbanding.
The IRA, for its part, remains a brazenly hypocritical organization. Its well-publicized opening of some hidden arms dumps has managed to accrue capital for its political wing, Sinn Fein, but, at the very same time it has been smuggling new, state-of-the art weaponry into Ireland from abroad. At the recent trial in Florida of three suspected members of the IRA who were convicted of operating an illegal arms ring in the United States, it emerged that several hundred guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition have made their way into Ulster and the Irish Republic over the past 18 months.
If Sinn Fein/IRA is truly committed to democratic politics, why this continued trafficking in illicit weapons? There are two main reasons. First, Sinn Fein/IRA needs to maintain the credibility of its threat to carry out bombing attacks on mainland Britain in order to blackmail politicians. Additional concessions are expected. High on the list of priorities is the reform of the police in Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Sinn Fein/IRA hopes to accomplish this in a fashion calculated to ensure the crippling of the RUC and the demoralization of its members. The most deleterious of the reforms championed by Sinn Fein/IRA are the removal of all references to the British crown from the RUC's name and insignia, the downsizing of the force and a decentralized management structure. These proposals, first outlined in a report issued last September by Chris Patten, are incorporated into the Northern Ireland Police Bill now working its way through the British Parliament. Another objective sought by Sinn Fein/IRA is accelerated British military withdrawal from Ulster.
Yes, the RUC must recruit more Catholics into its ranks. But this change can occur only when the IRA stops intimidating Catholics who voluntarily join the force. The RUC reforms as currently envisaged constitute a profound insult to a police service that has suffered over 300 deaths and 9,000 injuries while serving as a bulwark between democracy and anarchy during the Troubles. In this regard, the recent sponsorship by Sen. Edward Kennedy and several of his congressional colleagues of a resolution threatening to cut off FBI-sponsored training of the RUC unless the Patten reforms are "fully and faithfully" implemented actually undermines the rule of law in Ulster. Over the past 10 days it has been the RUC, working in tandem with the British Army, that has protected Catholics in Drumcree and North Belfast from marauding bands of Protestant loyalists. Members of the U.S. Congress would do better to mirror the actions of Queen Elizabeth, who recently awarded the George's Cross to the RUC in recognition of its heroism during the conflict in Northern Ireland.
The second reason why the IRA continues to import weapons into Ireland is that it needs them to maintain the rigid control it exerts over local enclaves throughout Ulster. Like organized crime syndicates in America, republican and loyalist paramilitary groups have carved up Northern Ireland into local fiefdoms that are riddled with illicit drug trafficking, extortion and sophisticated smuggling operations. Turf wars often break out between these gangs. In early June the IRA murdered Edmund McCoy, a small-time drug dealer, in West Belfast; several years ago it murdered Andrew Kearney in the same locale for insulting an IRA godfather; it has already killed two drug pushers in Dublin this year. Loyalist mobs, meanwhile, are not immune to this tendency; an internecine feud between two of them led to the deaths of several Protestant terrorists in the spring.
An integral part of the brutal reigns of terror promulgated by paramilitaries are the severe beatings, shootings and kneecappings they mete out at their discretion. These attacks are better known as "punishment beatings," but this calculated euphemism blunts the savagery that leaves victims traumatized, psychologically scarred and often permanently disabled. Contrary to the supposed logic of the peace process, these attacks have not subsided. At the insistence of the Conservative Party opposition at Westminster, a parliamentary committee is finally launching an investigation into these sordid forms of summary justice, for which there can be absolutely no justification whatsoever. In sum, punishment beatings, drug-related murders and paramilitary blackmail constitute the dark side of politics in Northern Ireland.
This uncivilized behavior has received little attention in the international press, because it does not resonate with the utopian zeitgeist of the political establishments in Ireland, the United Kingdom and the United States. Drawing attention to it is considered "unhelpful" to the peace process. In the meantime, the people who pay a price for such vanity are the decent, law-abiding citizens of Northern Ireland.

Conor Cruise O'Brien is a former Irish Cabinet minister and a contributing editor to the "Atlantic Monthly." Joseph Morrison Skelly is the author of "Irish Diplomacy at the United Nations."

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