IRA has sharpened claws in absence of monitoring commission

Either IRA has got new weapons or it was not truthful on decommissioning

Former minister for justice Michael McDowell: explained that the Irish, British and US governments agreed in 2005 the survival of an ‘unarmed and withering husk’ of an IRA was vital for the good of the process. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Former minister for justice Michael McDowell: explained that the Irish, British and US governments agreed in 2005 the survival of an ‘unarmed and withering husk’ of an IRA was vital for the good of the process. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

 

In The Irish Times on Wednesday, former minister for justice Michael McDowell gave a clue as to why things have now gone so badly wrong in the Northern Ireland peace process.

He explained that the Irish, British and US governments agreed in 2005 the survival of an “unarmed and withering husk” of an IRA was vital for the good of the process.

Sinn Féin pressed for the abolition of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), he wrote. “Its abolition leaves us back where we were prior to its creation: dependent on the police forces and their ministers for an assessment of the existence of and responsibility for paramilitary crime.”

The IMC was set up in 2004 and survived for seven years, tasked with producing regular reports detailing the level of republican and loyalist paramilitary activity. Its four commissioners were drawn from the UK, US and both parts of Ireland. They included, during its final years, a former deputy director of the CIA and the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s anti-terror branch.

It is worth revisiting the first substantive report it produced following the IRA’s July 2005 decision to end its violence. Published in October 2006, it had this to say of the Provisionals: “We remain of the view which we expressed in our report six months ago, namely that the PIRA leadership has committed itself to following the political path. In the period since then we have seen further evidence to support this.”

The report went on to detail some of that “further evidence”, including the disbandment of the IRA’s quartermaster department, responsible for acquiring weapons; its engineering department, which made explosives and bombs; and its training department. Volunteers had been stood down and the weekly stipend paid to activists halted.

Shock

It was meaty stuff. Contrast that detail with the statement issued by PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton after the killing of Kevin McGuigan. His admission, first of all, that the IRA still existed came as a shock to a public that had been encouraged to believe it had gone away.

And then he seemed to say that, while IRA members were involved in killing McGuigan, the IRA itself wasn’t really responsible, conflicting words that arguably worsened an already vexed situation. “Some current Provisional IRA and former members continue to engage in a range of criminal activity and occasional violence in the interest of personal gain or personal agendas,” he said.

The idea of the IMC was born in 2003 out of frustration with the slow pace of IRA decommissioning and a paucity of evidence that things were changing on the ground.

The brainchild of Michael HC McDowell, a former Irish journalist and now a US-based consultant, it won the backing of his namesake in the Department of Justice in Dublin, and of Mitchell Reiss, George W Bush’s ambassador to the peace process. Both men were known to be almost apoplectic at the willingness of Tony Blair’s government to indulge Sinn Féin and the readiness of the British to minimise the consequence of IRA excesses such as the Northern Bank robbery or the killing of Robert McCartney.

The Northern Ireland Office opposed the idea, seeing it as impinging on their mandate. But the strongest resistance came from Sinn Féin. “They were furious about the idea, complaining it would be dominated by spooks and securocrats. They wanted constructive ambiguity to continue unabated,” recalled Michael HC McDowell.

Eventually Sinn Féin got its way and the IMC was wound up. In the absence of regular reports on paramilitary activity and with a mostly reassuring silence from government and police services on both sides of the Border, the public began to think the IRA was a thing of the past. Hence the level of shock at the revelation that not only had it not gone away, but it had structures, guns and the personnel to use them.

It is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that in the absence of regular scrutiny by an IMC-like body, the IRA has slipped back into bad old ways.

The problem with former minister McDowell’s “unarmed and withering husk” thesis is that unarmed husks impress nobody, not least dissident republicans or a rank-and-file that needs constant reassurance that the peace process is not the biggest sell-out in history.

In that October 2006 report, the IMC made this bald statement about IRA weapons: “We do not believe that weapons have been acquired or developed.” It went on to confirm its view that the IRA had destroyed its weapons arsenals in September 2005. That is no longer the case. McGuigan was killed with powerful weapons, one of them a semi-automatic rifle. Clearly, new weapons have been acquired or the IRA was not entirely truthful in September 2005.

On IRA structures, chief constable Hamilton said: “At this stage we assess that some Provisional IRA organisational infrastructure continues to exist but has undergone significant change since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Some, primarily operational level structures were changed and some elements have been dissolved completely since 2005.”

That tells the public next to nothing. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the IRA has taken advantage of the IMC’s dissolution to harden up its husk and to give it some sharp claws. The solution to salvaging the peace process, is thus not hard to figure.

Ed Moloney is author of A Secret History of the IRA

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