IN MARCH last year a man named Keith Rogers was shot dead on the forecourt of a petrol station at Cullaville, County Armagh, in Northern Ireland. He was buried with full IRA honours, his casket draped in the Irish tricolour and the cortège accompanied by men in black berets and dark glasses. Keith Rogers was the latest Provisional IRA volunteer to be killed in action.
With the formal IRA ceasefire a decade old this month - and with Tony Blair and the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, due to meet early next month to discuss how to wind up the IRA’s military wing - it could be that Keith Rogers, acting as part of a Provo punishment squad when he was shot, will enter the republican pantheon as the very last IRA man to die in a bloody conflict that has lasted, depending on where you begin, over a century.
The past ten years have certainly seen a transformation for the good in Northern Ireland. Gone are the almost-daily bombings that once reduced central Belfast to a clone of war-torn Beirut. Massive urban redevelopment, funded by the British taxpayer, has turned Belfast into the rival of any contemporary mainland city, with a new convention centre, designer bars and the usual interchangeable brand names on the shops. Folk can go out at night without fear of being machine-gunned because of their religion.
True, the ceasefire has had its wobbles. Some 185 people have been killed since it came into force. There was the 17-month lapse through 1996 and 1997, during which the Provos bombed Canary Wharf in London. That episode was patched over in the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, yet there remain the incessant punishment beatings and knee-cappings, conducted by both sides. The street clashes at Drumcree show that communal hatreds remain ingrained, but in recent years even the traditional Orange marching season has seemed less tension-ridden.
Normality is seeping back into Northern Ireland inch by inch, year by year, even if the two communities remain more separated, geographically and socially, than blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa.
Ten years on, the biggest fly in the political ointment is exemplified by Keith Rogers, the last Provo to die on active service. Rogers was 24 when he was shot. That would have made him 15 when the IRA ceasefire began, too young to have been accepted into the Provisionals. In other words, Rogers must have been recruited, trained and sent on "active service" after the ceasefire. Keith Rogers is proof the IRA has not been in hibernation. New weapons have been acquired, even if a few old ones have been decommissioned.
Above all, the IRA has maintained its intelligence network, researching targets, human or otherwise. In October 2002, Sinn Fein’s offices at the Stormont Assembly building were raided by police investigating an IRA intelligence-gathering operation inside the Assembly itself aimed at civil servants and Unionist Assembly members - hardly suggestive of an irrevocable turn to democratic politics. Two weeks later, the then Secretary of State, John Reid, was forced to announce the return of direct rule from London.
The paradox is that, despite the continued existence of the IRA, the Republicans want peace. A quarter of a century of armed struggle got them no nearer the end of partition and the republican community grew weary of the sacrifice. Besides, the boom in the Republic, and the remorseless demographic tide in the North that sees the Catholic population within an inch of becoming a majority, spell a far more permanent historic death knell for Unionism than the Armalite.
Then why the continuing IRA activity? Partly it is historical inertia; partly distrust of the Unionists. And it is a way for the republican leader, Gerry Adams, to keep the IRA hotheads otherwise engaged while Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, gets on with the real business of elections. Yet even Adams realises things must move on if he is to capitalise on becoming the largest nationalist party in the North. Recently, he described the continuing existence of the IRA as an excuse for Unionists to veto political progress, and said that excuse must be removed.
But Adams has two difficulties. First, can he exercise sufficient control over the military wing to ensure it does not threaten the ceasefire? Ten quiet years have seen many volunteers more likely to enjoy an evening in front of the telly than training in some Fermanagh bog. Sinn Fein’s own electoral successes have helped, relegating the IRA to junior partner for the first time. This shift in the balance of forces has been cemented by a move unique in the IRA’s history: the leaders of Sinn Fein are now also the military leadership.
A majority of the Provisional IRA’s Army Council also are elected Sinn Fein politicians. As a result, the military wing is under firm civilian control, while the two tiny republican splinter groups, the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, remain isolated.
Adams’s second problem is what to do with the volunteers if the IRA is disbanded. He would prefer something which avoids any suggestion of surrender. One idea being mentioned is to accept a demilitarised but legal IRA as a sort of old comrades’ association, with veterans being free to attend commemorations and bury old comrades.
All sides now realise that the only way forward - including the return of the Assembly, which everyone wants - is to make some decisive breakthrough on disbanding the IRA. The wild card is the emergence of Ian Paisley’s DUP as the largest Unionist party, following last November’s Assembly elections. At the coming talks, the DUP will be responsible for the first time for representing the Unionist side, led by Peter Robinson, Paisley’s heir-apparent.
Last week, Gerry Adams warned the DUP against making impossible demands. "They cannot set the bar at Heaven’s height". But Adams appeared to hint at some compromise on his side, changing his terminology from negotiating the "decommissioning" of IRA weapons to "standing down" the organisation. In the coded world of republican-speak, that signified that Adams was willing at last formally to discuss disbanding the Provos.
However, it remains to be seen if the DUP can make the transition from rejectionist front to deliverer of a final settlement; ie, turning the present armed truce into a genuine peace. Discussions will hinge around the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), successor to the old Royal Ulster Constabulary. Sinn Fein still refuses to recognise the PSNI or participate in running it, though they want the devolution of security powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The DUP might just trade Sinn Fein’s accepting the PSNI for a formula to ease out the IRA.
Adams says that Sinn Fein’s acceptance of the PSNI "would be a bigger strategic compromise than the Good Friday Agreement", because in effect it means the IRA will give up punishment beatings and rely on the PSNI to uphold the law in Republican strongholds. But Sinn Fein’s embrace of the PSNI also could provide a solution to how to disband the IRA. The younger, more active IRA volunteers - "the testosterone brigade" in local parlance - could be encouraged to join the PSNI’s part-time local reserve.
The result could see former Provos and former RUC members patrolling the same streets together. Stranger things have happened in the strange world of Northern Ireland politics.