A History of Ireland in 100 Objects: Decommissioned AK-47 assault rifle, 2005
It is a mass-manufactured commodity, as iconic in its own dark way as a Coca-Cola bottle or an iPhone. Designed by the self-taught Russian inventor Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Avtomat Kalashnikova-47 – AK-47 for short – went into production in 1947.
Durable, reliable, adaptable and light, it was exported in huge numbers, initially to the armies of states friendly to the Soviet Union. But its low cost and ease of use gradually made it the weapon of choice for guerrillas, militias and, indeed, criminal gangs.
The Provisional IRA made extensive use of AK-47s, many of them supplied by the Libyan leader Muammar Gadafy in the 1980s, during the conflict in Northern Ireland. One shipment of arms from Libya intercepted in 1987 contained 1,000 AK-47s.
So-called republican paramilitaries caused the majority – 58 per cent – of the more than 3,600 deaths in the conflict, including those of 713 innocent civilians. The Provisional IRA was responsible for more than 1,000 deaths. (The largest single category of victims, however, were innocent Catholic civilians killed by loyalist paramilitaries.)
By the 1980s the point of all of this suffering was increasingly unclear. The IRA could not be defeated by military means, but neither could it force a united Ireland. The conflict settled down into an apparently endless series of tit-for-tat killings, punctuated by larger atrocities. As the British prime minister Tony Blair put it in 2006, “The way this struggle was being conducted was . . . out of date and pointless. No one was ever going to win.”
There were large shifts in the wider context of the Troubles: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war, the increasingly pluralist nature of the Republic of Ireland, the effects of Ireland and Britain’s common membership of the European Union.
For a long time the conflict seemed impervious even to these momentous changes. Slowly, however, new possibilities opened up. The IRA’s ally Sinn Féin, under the leadership of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, began to see the potential for democratic political organisation.
The British government made it clear in 1990 that it had no selfish “strategic or economic interest” in retaining control of Northern Ireland. Irish governments, largely driven on by the Northern nationalist leader John Hume, stepped up their engagement in the search for a settlement. The US president Bill Clinton took a benign and active interest in the problem.
The tortuous peace process that led to IRA ceasefires in 1994 and 1996 and culminated in the historic Belfast Agreement of 1998 was bedevilled by the issue of IRA arms. Both governments insisted that the IRA surrender its arsenal. When this proved impossible, a new word gained currency: decommissioning, the putting of weapons “beyond use”.
In September 2005 the IRA finally decommissioned its weapons, laying the ground for a deal that had seemed utterly impossible: the sharing of power between Sinn Féin and the previously hardline Democratic Unionist Party.
Most observers accepted that the decommissioning of mutually hostile mindsets would take a great deal longer. But, for once at least, courage, ingenuity and a refusal to accept the apparently inevitable seemed to be on the winning side of Irish history.
Where to see it National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History, Collins Barracks, Benburb Street, Dublin 7, 01-6777444, museum.ie