- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 2, 2005

DUBLIN, Ireland. — “Spin,” stage-management and all the black arts of politics attended the Irish Republican Army’s formal end to its terrorist campaign even before it was announced last Thursday. Three days before, Irish Justice Minister Michael MacDowell, a fierce critic of Sinn Fein-IRA, announced its two leading figures, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, resigned from the IRA’s supreme decisionmaking body, the Army Council.

It seemed an odd way for Sinn Fein-IRA to make this known — namely, through one of their bitterest enemies — but it was very necessary. Neither Mr. Adams nor Mr. McGuinness could announce their own resignations since they always denied belonging to the Army Council. And if an IRA-friendly source had broken the news, it might have been dismissed as just another “Provo” deception. Mr. MacDowell provided the necessary impartial confirmation.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would suspect his previous denunciations of Sinn Fein-IRA were issued to establish his suitability for this role. The real explanation, of course, is that Dublin, London and Washington were spinning wildly to enhance the credibility of ending of the IRA terror campaign.

A stately minuet of diplomatic approval followed the IRA declaration. Prime Minister Tony Blair announced it was “a step of unparalleled magnitude.” Irish Premier Bertie Ahern added it was “historic.” Mr. McGuinness flew to Washington to brief the administration on its historic significance. Mr. Adams gave a historic press conference. And so on. All this produced slightly disappointing results for the “spinners.”

Immediate media reports treated the IRA statement favorably as the final historic end to the Northern Ireland “troubles.” But more skeptical commentary and reporting followed.

Critics noted that Mr. Blair and Mr. Ahern had hailed previous IRA statements in very similar terms — using such phrases as a “seismic shift” and “the hand of history.” And that was partly because the IRA had issued very similar statements before.

More than a decade ago, it sent a message to London that “the war is over.” At the time of the Downing Street statement 11 years ago, it promised “a complete cessation of hostilities.” In the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, Mr. Adams promised to do his best to end the armed struggle by using his good offices to influence the IRA Army Council of which he was a member.

Yet murder, maiming, intimidation, thuggery and racketeering, albeit on a smaller scale and not directed at British forces, have continued throughout.

And when this latest IRA statement was examined in detail, it had loopholes you could drive a car bomb through. The IRA will “dump arms” but does not promise to hand over all arms. It still refuses to cooperate with the reformed police force. Above all — and contrary to first impressions — the IRA has not promised to disband. It will maintain its paramilitary structure (justifying its continued existence as necessary to protect Catholics) and merely suspend military operations. That will hardly reassure those who remember it did that in 1962.

If the IRA statement does not really offer peace, what is it meant to achieve? It enables Sinn Fein-IRA to pursue two opposite courses simultaneously. The first course is to demonstrate they have finally given up terrorism for democratic politics — a demonstration more or less forced on the IRA by a succession of dramatic events:

(1) September 11, 2001, brought home to Americans the reality of terrorism. Former Irish-American supporters began to shun Sinn Fein.

(2) The international “war on terror” obliged the U.S. to act against terrorism in Ireland. President Bush signified he would crack down on Sinn Fein fund-raising if it continued — a determination signaled by his decision not to invite Mr. Adams to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at the White House.

(3) The arrest of IRA advisers to the FARC terrorists in Colombia exposed the IRA’s links with anti-American terrorists worldwide. This made the United States still more determined to force the IRA out of the terror business.

(4) The brutal murder of Robert MacCartney by IRA “volunteers” in a crowded Belfast pub — and the subsequent silence of about 70 witnesses — focused U.S. attention for the first time on the IRA’s brutal intimidation of Catholics.

(5) Above all, the Northern Ireland elections shifted power away from moderate Unionists who previously served alongside Sinn Fein in a coalition government to Paisleyite Unionists who insisted on a full and final IRA disarmament as a first condition of power-sharing. Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness had to respond to these dramatic events with something equally dramatic. Hence their deftly-spun promise to end the terror campaign yet again.

Still, they did not want to entirely abandon the second course that had served them well in recent years — keeping a private army in the wings, intimidating opponents and implicitly threatening resumed terrorism unless London and the Unionists keep making concessions. Hence, the IRA will not disband, nor cooperate with the police, nor surrender all arms. At least, it will cultivate a sinister ambiguity on these questions.

Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness will keep their private army but confine it to barracks. They probably calculate such silky tactics will restore them as government ministers within the year. And given the evident desire of London and Dublin to appease them, they may well be correct.

But two obstacles emerge in their path. No Unionists, Paisleyite or moderate, will serve with Sinn Fein until they are fully convinced IRA terrorism is irrevocably ended. They will demand irrefutable evidence the IRA has destroyed or surrendered all its weapons rather than merely “dumped” some of them. Even then they may make Sinn Fein wait several years in the cold.

And while Sinn Fein-IRA waits, a new kind of law may catch up with them — and with the “loyalist” paramilitaries in the Protestant community. Throughout the world, in postconflict situations from Chile to South Africa, families of terror victims are using civil and international law to bring their murderers to justice. Legal action against the breakaway “Real IRA” terrorists who carried out the horrific 1998 Omagh bombing is winding its way through the Northern Irish courts.

Omagh murdered 29 innocent people and maimed another 220. But literally thousands of innocent people died as a result of the long terrorist campaign directed by the IRA Army Council. And last week no less an authority than the Irish Republic’s justice minister confirmed Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness were on that Council until very recently. They may find themselves in court long before they get their official limousines back.

John O’Sullivan is editor at large of the National Review.

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