Northern Ireland: Peace process still in the balance

The IRA outlasted generations. More than a decade into the peace process is it still a force, asks Stephen McGinty

WHILE alive, Brian Keenan had callously brought forward the funerals of dozens of men by bullet or bomb. As a member of the Army Council of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), he had planned "spectaculars" and pushed for the Kingsmill massacre in which ten Protestants were killed in a machine gun attack in January, 1976. Yet by the time of his own funeral, in May, Keenan was hailed as a vital architect of the Northern Ireland peace process.

In many ways, the funeral in Belfast was as much for the organisation he helped lead as for the man himself, and it illustrated that times had changed. While the black beret and dark leather gloves rested on the coffin lid, there were no men in black balaclavas firing handguns above a grave. Mourners favoured white shirts and black ties over army fatigues and included Martin McGuinness, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and a former comrade-in-arms.

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Today, the Independent Monitoring Commission is expected to make a special report to the British and Irish governments on the current status of the Provisional IRA and to conclude, once again, that it is no longer a danger to the state. It is, however, unlikely to state that the seven-strong Army Council had been disbanded and it remains to be seen if this is enough to persuade the DUP to agree to the devolution to the Northern Ireland Assembly of Policing and Justice.

As Jeffrey Donaldson, of the DUP, said: "It remains our position that the Army Council must leave the stage and that the IRA should no longer function in any respect." However, Mr McGuinness said last month: "The IRA have clearly gone off the stage since 2005, but attempts are still made by some people to drag them back on, and I think that's silly."

It is now more than three years since the Army Council announced an end to its armed campaign and stated that it would work using "purely political and democratic programmes through exclusively peaceful means" and ordered that IRA "volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever". This followed the final decommissioning of its weaponry, under the supervision of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD), and said to include the destruction of 1,000 rifles, three tonnes of Semtex, 20-30 heavy machine guns, seven surface-to-air missiles, seven flame throwers, 1,200 detonators, 20 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 100 handguns and more than 100 grenades.

So does the Provisional IRA no longer exist? The answer is complicated. The fact that the Army Council remains in operation indicates that there remain elements to control. The Army Council will not disband. However, members who die or resign are not being replaced, but it will still take years before it withers and dies.

Peter Sheridan, Assistant Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said he believed that vestiges of the IRA will be around for years. Across the border in the Irish Republic a senior intelligence source in the Garda recently said that the IRA had continued to recruit and that it still held weapons.

However, Adam Ingram, a former minister in the Northern Ireland office is optimistic. He said: "I would take the assurances that have been given both by the independent commission and by the government that the military activities of the PIRA have ceased. I saw enough during my time seven years ago to convince me that Sinn Fein were determined to put the gun behind them and use a democratic process. There is a worry from those dissident factions who still think that they can defeat the British government by terrorist means and achieve a united Ireland. They are a minority but remain dangerous."

These include organisations such as the Continuity IRA, the INLA, the Real IRA and more recent splinter groups like Oglaigh na hEireann or Saoirse na hEireann.

"No. The IRA is not going to go away," said Ed Moloney, the author of The Secret History of the IRA, who believes that Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein derive too much political power from the threat of renewed IRA violence to give it up completely. "The security forces, MI5 may go along with the lie for political expediency but ordinary people in Northern Ireland will know they will not go away." He also said that even if the IMO said today that the Army Council had disbanded, it would not be the case as the IRA retains an investment portfolio, estimated to be worth 200 million, which requires management.

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In 2002, the House of Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee estimated that the IRA's annual running costs were 2.3 million but that through front companies and offshore accounts it earned 9 million. The IRA has invested heavily in bars, clubs, taxi-firms, shops and hotels and, according to John Horan, an expert on money-laundering and a former member of the PSNI, the organisation now operates bureau de changes in France and Britain. In the past few years IRA funds worth 40 million have been seized by the Garda's Criminal Asset Bureau and the UK's Serious Organised Crime Agency.

So are they now a criminal gang rather than a paramilitary force? What is the difference when people like Paul Quinn still die by their hands? Mr Quinn was said to have clashed physically and verbally with relatives of local IRA figures. He was lured to a farm in Co Monaghan where he was greeted by men in boilersuits, surgical gloves and armed with iron bars and nail-studded clubs. They broke almost every bone in his body then left him to die. The official government report into his death claimed that he was killed over a criminal dispute and that while some of his killers had associations with the IRA, the murder was contrary to the instructions of the organisation. Many doubt this.

Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA commander who served 18 years for murder, believes that while both the IRA and the Army Council are on their death beds, damage can still be done. He said: "I don't believe Ireland has seen its last IRA murder."

For some republicans the war for united Ireland goes on

The Continuity Irish Republican Army

The CIRA is an republican paramilitary organisation that emerged from a split in the Provisional IRA in 1986 whose supporters regard it as the national army of a 32-county Irish Republic. The CIRA continues to oppose the Belfast Agreement and, unlike the Provisional IRA the CIRA has failed to announce a ceasefire or agreed to participate in weapons decommissioning – nor is there any evidence that it will. In a recent report by the Independent Monitoring Commission the CIRA was labelled "active, dangerous and committed and … capable of a greater level of violent and other crime."

The Real IRA

The RIRA was formed in 1997 following a split in the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The organisation has been responsible for a number of bombings in Northern Ireland and England, including the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people. The IMC report of May 2008 states that there are at least two factions within the RIRA. Furthermore, the RIRA was said to be active and dangerous. During the period covered by the report, it had tried to expand its capacity, and remained a threat that was "capable of extreme violence". Despite this, the IMC said that there is reason to believe that some members realise the futility of violent action.

The Irish National Liberation Army

The INLA is an Irish Republican, left-wing paramilitary organisation which was formed in 1974 and was influential in the late 1970s and early 1980s and is now one of a number of small armed republican groups. In December 1997, three members of the INLA imprisoned in Long Kesh assassinated Loyalist Volunteer Force leader Billy Wright. The INLA declared a ceasefire on 22 August, 1998 and went on to accept the massive vote in favour of the Good Friday Agreement – an arrangement it had opposed during the 1998 referendum – by the people of Ireland. Although the INLA does not support the Good Friday Agreement, it does not call for a return to armed struggle on behalf of republicans either.