No return to war

  • 11 February 2005
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Is Gerry Adams about to make another momentous phone call? Just before the explosion at Canary Wharf in February 1996, which ended the IRA's first ceasefire, the Sinn Féin president rang the White House to warn of disturbing news.

Some observers believe the Provisionals' ceasefire is again under similar pressure. However, this reporter can find no evidence of serious splits within the organisation. At a leadership level, there is complete unity.

Neither are there any senior hardline figures around which dissenters could rally. Those who led the previous rebellion, such as the former quartermaster general, Michael McKevitt, left to form the Real IRA in late 1997.

Every member of the seven-strong Army Council is regarded as supporting Sinn Féin's peace strategy. Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin TD for Kerry North, Martin Ferris, all sit on the Army Council.

The chief-of-staff, Slab Murphy, was once very sceptical of the peace process but is now more interested in his business empire which is allegedly based on cross-Border smuggling.

Another Army Council member, Brian Keenan, previously regarded as a hardliner, has proved himself a staunch Adams supporter at every turn.

A former Belfast Brigade OC was once a leading hawk but dramatically changed sides upon promotion to the Army Council.

The seventh member is a south-Armagh man heavily involved in smuggling and loyal to the leadership.

Speaking to ordinary IRA members across counties Armagh, Antrim and Tyrone, this reporter could not uncover evidence of any rebellion or serious discontent.

One source said: "There is a level of disillusionment with recent events but most of those grumbling will still be out canvassing for Sinn Féin come the election."

A republican veteran said that if the Adams-McGuinness camp had successfully out-manoeuvred previous highly experienced internal opponents, it was "impossible to believe they're being out-manoeuvred by anyone left behind".

Even if a grassroots rebellion forced a return to all-out conflict – and there are no visible signs of this – the Provisionals' ability to go back successfully is questionable. The IRA remains a wealthy, highly skilful organisation which has continued training, recruiting, buying weapons, and gathering intelligence. It has up to 1,500 members so has no personnel shortage.

But while it's certainly capable of a spectacle, there are serious doubts over whether it could maintain a sustained campaign. Sources say British electronic surveillance has moved on remarkably since 1994.

The IRA's ability to carry out robberies so successfully during the peace process doesn't mean it can return to war with the same ease. It has been able to concentrate on ordinary criminal activities with such impressive results precisely because it isn't diverting time, energy and personnel into attacks on the security forces.

In a situation where military operations against the security forces resumed, the Provisionals would be operating in a much more hostile environment.

An analysis of the IRA's return to violence from February 1996 - July 1997 shows that despite Canary Wharf and an attack on Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, the campaign wasn't a huge success from a republican viewpoint. There was a low level of security force fatalities and two young IRA volunteers, Ed O'Brien and Diarmuid O'Neill, were killed in England.

On countless occasions, mortars fired failed to explode or missed their target. Rockets and hand grenades failed to cause significant damage and it was suspected many had been interfered with by the security forces or their agents.

If the IRA success rate was relatively poor in 1996 after 18 months on ceasefire, it would surely have deteriorated further during another eight years on ceasefire from 1997.

Although, a core of experienced activists remain, most are well over 35. There is a huge question mark over the ability of the younger "ceasefire soldiers" recruited since 1994.

Republican sources ruled out any suggestion of an "al-Qaida like" campaign. "This is not Iraq or Palestine," said a source. While ordinary nationalists might tolerate a spectacular, a return to long-term conflict involving daily murder, mayhem and funerals would spell political death for Sinn Féin.

"People are so used to peace and living their lives normally there'd be a backlash against even a month of daily bomb scares and traffic jams," admitted a Belfast republican.

Considering the history of republicanism, it's difficult to see the fall-out of the Northern Bank robbery provoking a return to protracted conflict and motivating a new generation to take life, risk their own, and rot in jail over future decades.

Any IRA campaign now would not be based on the British having broken a promise to withdraw politically and militarily from the North within a certain time-frame, because that pledge was never made.