The decommissioning of the Provisional IRA, 10 years on

‘We all fell silent. One of the men handed over a last gun, ceremoniously, to the general’

A heavy machine gun recovered by  security forces from the Provisional IRA during the decommissioning process. File photograph: PA

A heavy machine gun recovered by security forces from the Provisional IRA during the decommissioning process. File photograph: PA

 

“It was hugely significant, we all fell silent. One of the [(IRA)]men handed over a last gun, ceremoniously, to the general. Fr Alec whispered in my ear, ‘that’s the last gun out of Irish politics’.

“He’s gone now and he’d worked in the shadows for a long time. But that was a big, big moment for him; for all of us there. It was a huge moment for everyone really.”

Although it’s a decade ago this weekend since the completion of the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA’s arsenal, Rev Harold Good remembers the words of Fr Alec Reid as vividly as if they were uttered yesterday.

Both men of the cloth, Rev Good is a former Methodist president from Derry who served for periods on Belfast’s loyalist Shankill Road and as a chaplain in Crumlin Road prison.

Fr Reid, now deceased, was a Redemptorist from Co Tipperary. He preached peace for four decades, based in the Monastery of Clonard, where the nationalist Falls Road meets the Shankill.

When it came time for the Provisionals to decommission, Fr Reid and Rev Good came together from their sides of the community to play their part, mostly out of sight, dealing with IRA men in secret locations in the borderlands.

Under General John de Chastelain, the former Canadian soldier and diplomat who headed the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, it fell to the two men to physically witness weapons, explosives and ammunition being surrendered and put beyond use.

“People say ‘what did you see?’” says 78-year-old Rev Good from his home in Hollywood, Co Down.

“People are curious, understandably, about what it means to put weapons beyond use and beyond reach. I cherish the trust that was vested in me and there’s no way I’d ever betray that trust.”

McGuigan murder

Rev Good said violent attacks, such as the murder in Belfast last month of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan, did not represent evidence that the paramilitary organisation continues to exist and poses a threat.

He added that when the PSNI linked the murder to the IRA, those comments were nuanced.

“I think we need to look at the PSNI comments and reports very carefully,” he said.

“What they would appear to me to be saying is that there is nothing to fear from whatever is there.

“Call it what you will; this organisation or this structure, if it exists, is not a threat to our security. It’s supportive of the peace process and wants to see it survive and to flourish.

“I would not be surprised if there was something there,” he said in relation to a continued Provisional IRA infrastructure of some sort.

“You cannot just throw a switch and expect people to disappear overnight; it’s about in what shape or form they exist. It is to support the peace process.

“There hasn’t been one shot or blast from people inside the political process in the 10 years since decommissioning; don’t forget that.

“There may have been from people who disagree with the process . . . people who want to pull us back to the dark ways, the dark ages.”

When it is put to him that McGuigan’s murder had essentially occurred within the IRA, he said: “Well, you must know something that we don’t know. Who knows what that’s all about? Is that gang warfare? Is it when rogues fall out with each other?

“You hear people who want to rubbish [the peace process] and saying ‘ah well, so much for your decommissioning’. But decommissioning was hugely successful.”

Rev Good believes people had become complacent and had underestimated the significance of the leadership of Sinn Féin condemning the McGuigan killing as criminality and urging anyone with information to speak to the PSNI.

“I mean come on; what? You wouldn’t have heard that 10 years ago.

“I heard people on a programme last week, a couple of fathers phoned in saying they couldn’t wait to get their children out of Northern Ireland. You’d think this was Syria. It’s not Syria.”

Continued division

While concerned at continued division and disputes between political parties, he cautioned against assuming that a generational change was the solution.

“You talk about a new generation, but what worries me is that some of the younger people coming into politics are as hardline as you’ll find.

“And some of them have been conditioned by conversations in their homes and in their communities. And they’ve come into politics with a lot of attitudes; they’ve inherited a lot of baggage.”

He was fearful that “progressive, open and open-minded people” were not coming into Northern politics.

“They are very scarce on the ground. The bright young people are going into the professions and all sorts of other activities. A lot of young people would look at the political scene and say ‘I don’t want to be a part of that’.”

But he believed the North was transformed and there was “no going back”.

“People who have come to live here, whose work has brought them here; when I ask them why they want to stay, they say quality of life. That’s what they say; quality of life.”