IRA ceasefire: déjà news
The IRA has formally declared an end to its armed campaign. What, again?
My first reaction when I heard that the IRA had formally declared its armed campaign over was: what, again? Didn’t it already do that in 1994, when it declared ‘a complete cessation of military operations’? The IRA may have broken that ceasefire with a massive bomb attack on Canary Wharf in London in February 1996, but it reinstated it in 1997 by declaring another ‘complete cessation of military operations as our contribution to the search for lasting peace’. It has since stated that it wants to see a ‘complete and final closure of this conflict’, and has committed itself to ‘non-violent means’ on more than a few occasions. So what, exactly, was so historic about yesterday’s statement? Isn’t this just déjà news?
The wild reaction to this most recent IRA statement confirms the elevation of symbolic gesture over political debate in Northern Irish affairs. It isn’t enough that the IRA has been observing a military ceasefire these past eight years and that it has decommissioned some of its arms. It’s not enough that the IRA ended its war to drive British forces out of Ireland over 10 years ago or that it accepts the right of British governments to determine what should happen in Northern Ireland. In the peace process, gesture and reassurance are all; it’s not what you do or what you believe that counts, but how you articulate things, what words you use, and the contribution you make to ‘confidence-building measures’ (whatever they might be) – hence the need for ever-more statements worded to everybody’s taste. This is politics as a cultural studies seminar.
Anyone with more than a fleeting acquaintance with recent Anglo-Irish history would not have needed yesterday’s statement – in which the IRA went further than previously, saying that ‘all IRA units have been ordered to dump arms’ and ‘volunteers must not engage in any [non-peaceful] activities whatsoever’ – to know that this is a changed organisation and that its war is over (1). The IRA stopped fighting against British rule in Ireland in 1994; it may have launched sporadic attacks in 1996 and 1997 but these were more an expression of frustration with the pace of the peace process than a return to war. As the IRA said during that 18-month resumption of violence, it remained committed to finding ‘an inclusive negotiated settlement’ that could satisfy all parties (2).
Over and above the IRA’s military forays since 1994, the Irish republican movement no longer fundamentally objects to British interference in Ireland. Sinn Fein and the IRA once claimed to be the ‘legitimate government’ of Ireland, the true heirs of the 1916 declaration of an Irish Republic, whose aim was to expel British forces from the Six Counties. Now republicans effectively accept their position as just another political party representing Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority in the peace process. Far from going back to war to get Brits out, republicans now demand more British engagement, calling on the British government to ‘face up to its responsibilities’ in finding a solution in Ireland (3).
The militant republicanism of Sinn Fein and the IRA was distinguished from the middle-class constitutional nationalism of the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) by two tactics: abstentionism – refusing to take seats in parliaments that were judged to be illegitimate – and the armed struggle. Politically, there was always very little difference between Sinn Fein/IRA and the SDLP; it was tactics that separated them. So when the republican movement ditched those tactics – turning its back on abstentionism in 1986, after which it took its seats in the Dublin parliament, and declaring an end to the armed struggle in 1994 – it became all but indistinguishable from the SDLP. Indeed, it has won over many SDLP voters, and at the 2005 General Election Sinn Fein got 175,000 votes to the SDLP’s 125,000 (4). Sinn Fein’s new policy position is for ‘An Island of Equals’, a woolly demand that could easily have been thought up by the SDLP’s sloganeering committee.
So if Sinn Fein and the IRA are changed beasts, why the need for more statements to prove it again and again? Why the headlines on this morning’s papers saying ‘THE END’ and ‘4pm, Thursday 28 July: Peace comes to Ireland’ – as if the war has only just come to a close? There has been no military conflict for years, as reflected in the recent handwringing focus on IRA volunteers robbing banks or getting into nasty pub brawls instead. Republican supporters say the demand for more and clearer statements is all about humiliating the IRA. No doubt there’s some truth in that: sometimes you get the impression that British officials and Unionist politicians will not be happy until IRA volunteers parade through the streets of Belfast and Derry with statements of sorrow and regret hanging from their necks, perhaps whipping themselves as they go. But more fundamentally, the statement-frenzy points to a hole where political debate used to be.
The peace process has transformed a political conflict into a clash of identities that has to be managed endlessly. It rewrote the 25-year conflict in Northern Ireland: what was in truth a struggle over national sovereignty between Irish republicanism and British and Unionist forces, between those who sought an independent united Ireland and those who wanted to keep British dominion over the North, is now talked about as some kind of inter-communal spat between two groups that just couldn’t see eye to eye. And when Northern Ireland’s problems are perceived in that way, then the role of politicians is no longer to find a political solution but to manage relations between communities, to reassure each community that it is valued, respected and taken seriously. Everything becomes re-focused around words and gestures and statements, as part of an ongoing process of ‘confidence-building’. As a BBC reporter put it, in contrast to the modern mantra ‘content is king’, in Northern Ireland ‘clarity is king’ (5).
Yet for some, even this latest statement from the IRA doesn’t go far enough. Henry McDonald, Belfast correspondent for the Observer, complained that the word ‘disbandment’ was missing (6). The IRA might be dumping arms, warning volunteers off violent actions and no longer opposing British rule, but it now needs to mention the d-word, apparently, to prove it is serious. Unionists, meanwhile, demand photographs of IRA decommissioning so that they can be certain the IRA is no longer a threat. This endless wordplay has made politics in Northern Ireland into an entirely elite endeavour, where British officials, republicans and Unionists bounce statements back and forth with little regard for the views of the masses. It is little wonder that, according to a recent report in the Irish Times, most people in Northern Ireland feel indifference towards the peace process. It is a spectator sport – and a boring, Countdown-style one at that.
(1) IRA statement in full, BBC News, 28 July 2005
(2) IRA not ready to restore ceasefire, CNN, 29 February 1996
(3) Gerry Adams: Presidential Address to Ard Fheis 1997, Sinn Fein, 1997
(4) Election 2005: Results Northern Ireland, BBC News, 23 May 2005
(5) Adams move ‘muddies the waters’, BBC News, 28 April 2003
(6) The booby trap in the IRA statement, Henry McDonald, Guardian Newsblog, 28 July 2005
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