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Calling the DUP’s bluff… the IRA Army Council may disband? And more on the Peace Process… March 18, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The North.

According to the Guardian :

The IRA will disband its army council as part of a deal to secure the devolution of policing in Northern Ireland, a senior republican has suggested.

Pat Doherty, vice-president of Sinn Féin, said he thought that all of the outstanding issues between unionists and republicans – including the disbanding of the IRA army council – could be resolved.

Devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland is supposed to be completed by May. But the Democratic Unionists and the Ulster Unionists are resisting that deadline, saying that more time needs to be allowed to build up public confidence.

Which get us to the crux of the matter.

Both parties have called for the IRA’s army council to be disbanded before the devolved administration takes control of policing and justice.

A problem? Well, seemingly not, for…

In an interview with the Guardian, Doherty suggested that the IRA would disband its army council as part of an overall settlement of this issue.

“I have no doubt, given all of the issues that we have resolved from the very beginning, all of the issues that you may have thought were insurmountable, … on the British side … the unionist side and the republican side, if we are serious about moving this whole process forward … then we can deal with any issue,” Doherty said.

Doherty said he thought the republicans and the DUP were both serious about taking the process forward.

And then says much the same thing again.

“If you look at any of what were perceived as insurmountable issues some time back, all of them were resolved. I have no doubt that issues can be resolved if there is dialogue.”

In a process which has been so heavily choreographed it is difficult to tell whether this is yet another pre-arranged step or whether this time Republicans are throwing some meat out to mute the baying of the DUP. Because surely this step has to be the most meaningless of any taken thus far. We’re moving into semi-theological territory. The inner council of an organisation which has, if the reports are to be taken at face value from the Independent Monitoring Commission, essentially suspended operations, which is locked into power-sharing, which voted to work with the PSNI.

And yet, who knows what resonances this might have beyond the specific issue. Does it add or reduce the legitimacy of other groups with self-described Army Councils? Does it strengthen or weaken the position of Sinn Féin to cast loose the ties and substance of another organisation? How does this play on the ground. For those of us with longish memories from a WP background the image of local residents in estates up and down the country calling on the supposed muscle that accompanied the WP, but was (honestly) never evident on that level, to deal with drug dealers and such like is still fresh. The disappointment when it was clear that marches might indeed take place but that they would be supported by the community rather than a group with a certain set of initials was evident. It’s a small thing, and one would presume Sinn Féin are aware of that. Probably more than most since they seemed to use the WP template (particularly as regards community politics) as both inspiration and cautionary tale. And in so doing have made steps forward and backwards – which only goes to prove that no two situations are exactly the same. But even so, the residual power and authority that comes from such ‘connections’ is not to be underestimated. There is of course another fact which is that Sinn Féin can be more overt about its former connections, that an entire generation of its political strength were entirely open about their part in the events of the past three or four decades and this too has a substance that the WP (and I’m obviously talking here about the South in particular) didn’t – in the main – have.

Perhaps not coincidentally we’re now also being treated to the memoirs of Jonathan Powell. Which weirdly describes a sort of opposite dynamic to the one above where the Army Council is apparently being sent a P45 (It’s in the post… probably). For we learn that:

Tony Blair offered to take the unprecedented step of holding secret masked meetings with the IRA leadership as he fought to save the Northern Ireland peace process from collapse over the contentious issue of illegal weapons, a senior aide reveals today.

In a sign of the extraordinary lengths the former prime minister was prepared to go to during his decade-long quest for a settlement, he tried repeatedly to meet the IRA’s eight-strong Army Council to persuade them to disarm and sign up to the peace deal.

Now that’s a meeting I’d have liked to have taken place. What would they have talked about? How many familiar faces would be sitting around the table? Still, I wonder is the following correct?

The revelation that Blair was prepared to become the first leader of a major country to meet a proscribed terrorist organisation – at the urging of Bill Clinton soon after he left the White House in 2001 – comes in a new book by Jonathan Powell, the former No 10 chief of staff, serialised in the Guardian this week.

Powell, who told the Guardian on Saturday that the west should now talk to al-Qaida, tells the paper today: “Tony was always convinced of the powers of persuasion that he had to win people over. About three or four times he suggested to Gerry Adams that he should meet the IRA Army Council. Adams said ‘well I’m not really sure about that’. One time he said ‘yes, maybe’, but then it came to nothing.”

And why the reticence? Well, okay, perhaps such reticence was for obvious reasons. And meanwhile, al-Qaida? Surely the world has wobbled a bit on its axis this weekend.

Asked how the meetings would have been conducted, Powell says of the IRA leaders: “I suppose they could have worn masks.”

The disclosure that Blair wanted to woo the leadership of the terrorist organisation that came close to assassinating his two immediate predecessors as prime minister is the most dramatic illustration to date of the former prime minister’s determination to bring republicans in from the cold.

Most interesting, referring back to choreography are the following points ‘also revealed’:

· Blair offered a secret deal to Adams during the 1998 Good Friday agreement to release IRA prisoners after one year. In public Blair only offered to release them after two years.

The rather more mundane revelation that:

· Powell held a series of secret meetings with the Sinn Féin leaders Martin McGuinness and Adams, often being driven around by republicans on lengthy detours to republican safe houses in the predominantly Catholic Derry to avoid detection.

Er…okay then. The more interesting again… and who is to say this won’t have those who consider the whole thing to be a sham in a fervour of excitement…

· Blair redrafted an IRA statement at Chequers in the presence of Adams in 2003 and Powell regularly drafted Sinn Féin statements.

· Blair was prepared to have a showdown with the British army over its initial refusal to remove watchtowers from the strongly republican South Armagh. The head of the army in Northern Ireland threatened to resign, though an agreement was eventually reached.

· The identity of the key IRA leader who decided republicans should disarm. Powell declares there would have been no peace deal without the agreement of Brian Keenan, described by Powell as “the biggest single threat to the British state” when he ran the IRA’s British bombing campaign.

The less surprising… nay, bloody obvious point that…

· Adams and McGuinness told Powell and Blair on several occasions that the IRA needed to hold on to its arms because they were under threat from the dissident Real IRA.

And also:

Powell admits to the Guardian today that Blair lavished attention on Sinn Féin for the simple reason that it had direct influence over people who controlled weapons. “Seamus Mallon’s [the former deputy leader of the SDLP] complaint is that we talked to Sinn Féin because they had the guns. My answer to that is: yes and your point is?

Which is – of course – why the wailing and gnashing of teeth from those who know better about how the ‘extremes’ prevailed is so irritating (and we saw Ed Moloney riffing on this at the launch of his book on Paisley last week when he decried the success of SF and the DUP). Well, yes, but their tactical positions have shifted substantially from the extremities whatever about the strategic goals they retain.

And then there are other issues…

Powell writes that after the first Downing Street meeting with Sinn Féin, Adams approached Blair for a private word to underline his commitment to the process, but also his determination to become the first republican leader in Irish history to avoid a major split.

Powell wrote: “Adams … said to Tony that he could of course split the movement any time we wanted him to, but that his aim was to carry them all along, and that he was at them persuading every day.”

The remarks persuaded Blair that Adams was serious and that he would accept a deal that fell short of Irish unity. This paved the way for 10 years of bumpy negotiations in which Powell often embarked on secret missions to meet the republican leadership.

Powell gives a vivid account of how he was summoned by McGuinness to Derry in November 1998 as the government tried to persuade the IRA to decommission its arms. Powell wrote: “When I got to Derry I stood apprehensively outside the Trinity hotel waiting for someone to recognise me. Two seedy-looking men came up and said: ‘Martin sent us,’ then ushered me into a waiting car.”

Powell said it was right to make concessions to Sinn Féin. “We certainly believed there was every chance that the IRA might go back to violence, just as they had with the Canary Wharf bomb [in 1996].”

‘seedy’ he says. Those Derry Republicans – eh? What on earth would it have been like in a parallel universe in a struggle with say PD? How would his sensibilities have survived the likes of McCann? But getting back to the main point, the issue of concessions is so fraught that I’m interested to see what more is revealed, or if anything of any other significance will appear.

Still, let’s see what the DUP says, and then perhaps we’ll have a better idea about choreography…


1. Phil - March 18, 2008

The Powell-generated stories in today’s Graun all but state outright that the 1993 “war is over” messages, purportedly from McGuinness, were MI6 fakes. Even Powell says

“What that message succeeded in doing, true or not, was to get the attention of the British government”

(emphasis added) – which comes awfully close to endorsing ‘not’.

I thought that was an interesting revelation. (History made by spooks: official.)


2. CL - March 18, 2008

·- Blair redrafted an IRA statement at Chequers in the presence of Adams in 2003 and Powell regularly drafted Sinn Féin statements.-
Well now we know the identity of P.O’Neill.


3. WorldbyStorm - March 18, 2008


Got to say I’m intrigued that all this is coming out now. I wonder… hmmm…


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