- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 6, 2005

Sometimes miracles in politics do happen. After nearly four decades of resorting to violence, using killings, political assassinations, kidnappings and bombing campaigns, the Irish Republican Army has formally ordered an end to its policy of armed struggle. Henceforth, the IRA — an acronym that has long stood for terror in Northern Ireland and the British Isles — is to follow a purely political agenda to achieve its aims.

This news could not come at a better time for Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair who needed some respite after two attacks on London’s public transportation system by Islamist terrorists that claimed the lives of 54 people.

The announcement of the IRA’s change of policy was well received at No. 10 Downing St. as well as in Dublin. Indeed, this change will allow Britain’s intelligence services to concentrate on the more imminent threat of Islamist terrorism.

“This may be the day when finally after all the false dawns and dashed hopes, peace replaces war, politics replaces terror on the island of Ireland,” said Mr. Blair.

The armed struggle by the IRA spanned more than three decades, though armed Irish rebels opposed to British rule have been around in one form or another for centuries. Wolfe Tone, a Protestant rebel who died in the 1798 rebellion is now revered as the founding father of the Irish rebellion. Opposition to Britain went through many phases, eventually sparking a war that led to the British leaving part of the island. That became the Republic of Ireland. But the Troubles in Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, continued on and off.

The revolt was revived in 1969 with the IRA becoming what the Independent newspaper calls “one of Europe’s largest, most active and longest-lasting violent groups.”

A bombing campaign in the 1970s left London on edge, frightening tourists away, forcing new security measures to become part of everyday life. As the Independent points out, “The IRA was not the only source of violence, but it was always the most proficient of the killing groups, the most cunning and the most dangerous.”

The IRA was responsible for more than 1,700 deaths of the 3,800 victims in what was referred to as “The Troubles.”

The IRA invented the car bomb; a device that claimed many civilian lives. In an incident known as Bloody Friday, nine persons were killed in Belfast in 1972 when the IRA detonated 20 devices in just more than an hour.

At times the IRA opted for daring operations, such as the 1979 assassination of Louis Mountbatten, and the killing of 18 soldiers at Warrenpoint in County Down in 1979.

In 1984, the IRA tried to kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and members of her Cabinet at the Grand Hotel in Brighton during the Conservative Party conference. Mrs. Thatcher survived but five persons died in the attack.

The IRA flirted with Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi and cooperated with extremist Palestinian groups. For a while, Col. Gadhafi armed and financed the Irish insurgents much to the detriment of the British government. In the 1980s, Col. Gadhafi provided the IRA with ample arms and explosives, including the powerful Semtex explosive.

Libya established training camps in the desert for the IRA where it could train in relative safety. Acting on Col. Gadhafi’s orders, Libyan intelligence agents provided weapons, safe houses and money to the IRA.

From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, the IRA enjoyed close ties with radical Palestinian organizations such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, then headed by George Habash.

For years, while the Palestinian guerrillas operated without hindrance in Lebanon, the PFLP and the IRA cooperated closely. The Palestinians provided training facilities in Lebanon and Syria to the IRA, as well as safe places for IRA members to lay low, whenever needed. In return, the IRA helped Palestinian operatives in Europe.

Last month’s historic statement announcing its abandonment of violence was read by former IRA prisoner Seanna Walsh: “All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms. All volunteers have been instructed to assist the development of purely political and democratic programs through exclusively peaceful means. Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever.”

But the IRA maintained its long struggle was “legitimate.”

“We are very mindful of the sacrifices of our patriot dead, those who went to jail, volunteers, their families and the wider republican base. We reiterate our view that the armed struggle was entirely legitimate. We are conscious that many people suffered in the conflict.”

The paramilitary group said that, though it was renouncing violence, it was not disbanding nor, for that matter, renouncing its vision of a united Ireland. The statement declared, “We believe there is now an alternative way to achieve this and to end British rule in our country.”

This surprising move away from violence comes after Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, the IRA political wing, asked that the group give up armed struggle and engage instead in the democratic process to achieve its aim.

Welcoming the news as historic, Mr. Blair said: “This is a step of unparalleled magnitude in the recent history of Northern Ireland.” Yet his and the Irish governments remained cautious.

The IRA will need to prove it stands by its word. Previous promises were broken and violence in the province resurfaced.

“The history of the past decade in Northern Ireland is littered with IRA statements which we were told were ‘historic,’ ‘groundbreaking’ and ‘seismic,’ said Democratic Unionist Party Leader Ian Paisley.

One IRA problem has been an inability to control breakaway groups, such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, who refuse to abide by IRA decisions. Whether it will be different this time and the IRA will impose its will on the splinter groups remains to be seen. Sometimes miracles do happen.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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