Michael McDowell: Abolition of Provisional IRA was never on the cards

IRA could more easily metastasise than wind itself up – that was the greater evil

‘Beyond use’, reads the headline on the front of the Irish News on October 24th, 2001, after Gen John de Chastelain had witnessed the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA’s arsenal. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Getty

‘Beyond use’, reads the headline on the front of the Irish News on October 24th, 2001, after Gen John de Chastelain had witnessed the decommissioning of the Provisional IRA’s arsenal. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/Getty


Anyone who has watched the brilliant HBO documentary on Scientology, Going Clear, will have some insight into some of the issues in relation to the IRA. They have much in common: a bizarre “creation myth”, a cult-like secrecy, a vast accumulated wealth. And, of course, the top people believe they are licensed to tell any lie that is convenient for the purposes of the movement.

To understand what is going on at the moment, one has to understand the IRA “creation myth”. The IRA Bible, otherwise known as the Little Green Book, asserts that the IRA’s Army Council was, in 1938, formally and in writing handed over the role of the “Government of the Irish Republic”, established in 1916, by a handful of irredentist opponents of the Treaty who had been members of the Second Dáil up to the ratification of the Treaty in 1921.

These former TDs somehow convinced themselves that even though most of them stood in subsequent elections to Dáil Éireann (some of them were defeated and some of them were elected), the body to which they sought election was a bogus, usurper parliament without legitimacy.

They conferred on themselves the status of “Executive Council” based on their membership of the Second Dáil and claimed thereafter to be the legitimate government of the Irish Republic. How they thought they had a continuing democratic mandate long after the lawful term of the Second Dáil had expired is, like a lot else, a bit of a mystery.

But after 18 years acting as the unelected government of the Irish Republic, their threadbare fantasy was becoming apparent even to themselves, so they decided to vest their governmental role and powers in the Army Council of the IRA in 1938, the year after the adoption of Bunreacht na hÉireann.

You may scoff. But this is exactly what the membership and leadership of the Provisional movement – the IRA and Sinn Féin – believe to this day. Bizarre as it may seem, this is the basis of the insistence of Gerry Adams and his colleagues that the IRA did not commit any crime in their campaigns of terror, murder, maiming, robbery and extortion. All such actions, you see, were carried out on the authority of the lawful “Government of the Irish Republic” – not crimes.

Gone away

What are we to believe? Adams claims he was never in the IRA. Most self-confessed former colleagues contradict him on that. But the party people who “doughnut” him at press conferences don’t question how Adams can be so authoritative about the status and activities and inactivities of the organisation that he ridiculously claims to have never been in. Nor do they question how he can be so clear as to whether as yet unidentified killers are or were members.

Was it part of the deals done at the Good Friday talks and at St Andrews that the IRA would cease to exist? The short answer is: no.

That may come as a surprise to some, And it requires some explanation.

The purpose of all those talks and the “peace process” was to bring into the democratic process of self-government in Northern Ireland all political parties, on the basis that they would share power. To that end, a prolonged period of political negotiation led by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern took place.

Would-be participants were required to demonstrate that they were totally committed to the pursuit of political objectives by exclusively peaceful and democratic means, and that they were committed to upholding the system of law and order and, in particular, the courts, the criminal law and the PSNI.

For the Provisional movement, this meant Sinn Fein would have to conduct itself as a conventional political party. Up to then, it had been subject to the will and control of the Army Council and played a subordinate, uncritical role to the IRA, which all members of the movement regarded as the legitimate political authority on this island.

Many believe the Belfast IRA influence remains the dominant force in Sinn Féin today. As a party, it brooks little if any dissent. What Adams and Belfast says goes.

Obviously a party which aspired to inclusion in an all-party Executive could not be linked to a paramilitary group with a vast illegal arsenal. That is why the decommissioning process was required. The Provisional movement resisted the concept of total, verifiable decommissioning (remember: “Not a bullet, not an ounce”). Painfully protracted negotiations took place regarding the method and witnessing of putting the Provos’ weapons beyond use.

As minister for justice, I had to take a hard stance against any backsliding on the issue of decommissioning. I warned against the tolerance of even a lightly armed defensive group of Provo members, which I dubbed a proposal for a political “Praetorian guard”. It was absolutely nonnegotiable as far as I was concerned that the only weapons on this island would be legally held weapons and that the only armed security services would be the Garda Síochána and PSNI.

When Gen John De Chastelaine reported that he had witnessed the decommissioning of the Provo arsenal, his report recited the statement by the IRA representative that this decommissioning included all the weapons and explosives in the possession of the IRA.

While that statement could not be totally verified, it amounted to a statement and undertaking by the IRA that it had decommissioned and no longer possessed any arms or explosives. Absolute proof that nothing was held back was illusory. But any subsequent proof that total decommissioning had not taken place was a political sword of Damocles hanging over the head of the Provisional movement.

In relation to criminality and the rule of law, I had to resist an attempt to create a parallel system under Provo control under the veil of Community Restorative Justice Committees. I had to take a hard stance on the Northern Bank robbery, the Makro robbery and extensive Provo-directed organised crime in the Republic. The same stance had to be taken against knee-cappings and punishment-shooting torture regularly carried out by the Provos.

I was not willing to go along with the childish political charade that Adams, Martin McGuinness and Martin Ferris were not members and in control of the Army Council. Nor was I willing to see them as interlocutors with unseen “hard men” when the intelligence available to me made it clear they were the hard men.

In this approach, I was hugely supported by the US political envoy, Mitchell Reiss.

When it came to the issue of whether the IRA should take some steps of formal disbandment, the governments had a clear political calculus. Precisely because of the IRA’s “creation myth” ideology, the choice was between an IRA that became an inert, unarmed and withering husk or an open-goal opportunity for dissidents to re-form an Army Council as the legitimate heir of the body which had been “treacherously” wound up.

Past splits and schisms in the IRA showed only too clearly that the IRA could more easily metastasise rather than wind itself up. That was seen, and I think rightly, as being the greater evil to be avoided.

The governments took the view that an inert, freeze-dried husk of the IRA was preferable to passing the ideological torch to the dissidents. The analogy that was used at the time was that it would become like the “Old IRA”, a harmless grouping. That is what Adams warranted would be involved in the IRA “going away”.


Sinn Féin pressed for the abolition of the Independent Monitoring Commission. Its abolition leaves us back where we were prior to its creation: dependant on the police forces and their ministers for an assessment of the existence of and responsibility for paramilitary crime.

Finally, money-laundering is a crime. Nobody has yet been implicated in the control or disposal of the Provo accumulated war chest of hundreds of millions of euro and pounds. That remains a challenge for the Criminal Assets Bureau, the Northern Ireland Assets Recovery Agency and the security services – a challenge made no easier by the involvement of not a few household names as fronts for the laundering of those monies.

It is too early to draw a reliable conclusion as to whether the recent Belfast killings are evidence of an intentional return to armed violence by the Provisional movement or something of less political consequence (if the loss of lives can be so described). In the meantime, the UK and PSNI assessment of the situation appears credible; Dublin’s less so.

Michael McDowell is former Minister for Justice

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