Ed Moloney with an unedited second article penned for the Irish Times on the status of the Provisional IRA. Ed Moloney blogs @ The Broken Elbow.
- The Irish Times headline on this piece was:
IRA has sharpened claws in absence of monitoring commission
“Sinn Fein pressed for the abolition of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC)”, he wrote. “Its abolition leaves us back where we were prior to its creation: dependant on the police forces and their ministers for an assessment of the existence of and responsibility for paramilitary crime.”
The IMC was set up in 2004 and survived for seven years, tasked with producing regular reports detailing the level of republican and loyalist paramilitary activity, including any committed by the Provisional IRA. Its four commissioners were drawn from the UK, US and both parts of Ireland and included, in its final years, a former deputy director of the CIA and the former head of the Metropolitan Police anti-Terror Branch.
It is worth revisiting the first substantive report it produced following the IRA’s July 2005 decision to end its violence against the British presence in Northern Ireland. Published in October 2006, it had this to say of the Provisionals:
We remain of the view which we expressed in our report six months ago, namely that the PIRA leadership has committed itself to following the political path. In the period since then we have seen further evidence to support this.
The report went on to detail some of that ‘further evidence’, including the disbandment of the IRA’s Quarter Master department, responsible for acquiring weapons; its engineering department, which made explosives and bombs and its training department. Volunteers had been stood down and the weekly stipend paid to activists stopped.
It was meaty stuff. Contrast that convincing detail with the statement issued by PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton following the murder of Kevin McGuigan. His admission, first of all, that the IRA still existed came as a shock to a public which, in the absence of any other information, had been encouraged to believe it had gone away.
And then he seemed to say that while IRA members were involved in killing Mr McGuigan, the IRA itself wasn’t really responsible, conflicting words that arguably worsened an already vexed situation:
Some current Provisional IRA and former members continue to engage in a range of criminal activity and occasional violence in the interest of personal gain or personal agendas.
The idea of the IMC was born in 2003 out of frustration with the slow pace of IRA decommissioning and a paucity of evidence that things were changing on the ground.
The brainchild of Michael HC McDowell, a former Irish journalist and now a US-based consultant, it won the backing of his namesake in the Irish Department of Justice as well as Mitchell Reiss, the former State Department official who had become George W Bush’s ambassador to the peace process. Both men were known to be almost apoplectic at the willingness of the Blair government to indulge Sinn Fein and the readiness of the British to minimise the consequence of IRA excesses such as the Northern Bank robbery or the murder of Robert McCartney.
The Northern Ireland Office opposed the idea, seeing it as impinging on their mandate. But the strongest resistance came from Sinn Fein. “They didn’t want it”, recalled Michael HC McDowell:
They were furious about the idea, complaining it would be dominated by spooks and securocrats. They wanted constructive ambiguity to continue unabated.
It took seven years but eventually Sinn Fein got their way and the IMC was wound up. In the absence of regular reports about paramilitary activity and in the face mostly of reassuring silence from government and police services on both sides of the Border, the public began to think the IRA was a thing of the past, hence the level of shock at the revelation that not only had it not gone away but it had structures, guns and the personnel to use them.
It is also not beyond the bounds of possibility that in the absence of regular scrutiny by an IMC-like body the IRA has slipped back into bad old ways, taking advantage of the constructive ambiguity, not to mention personal ambition, that can also characterise the ways of senior policemen, civil servants and their ministers.
The problem with former Minister McDowell’s “unarmed and withering husk” thesis is that unarmed husks impress no-one, much less dissident republican opponents or a rank and file that needs constant reassurance that the peace process is not the biggest sell out since creation.
In that October 2006 report, the IMC made this bald statement about IRA weapons: “We do not believe that weapons have been acquired or developed”, and it went on to confirm its view that the IRA had destroyed its weapons arsenals in September 2005.
That, plainly, is no longer the case. Kevin McGuigan was killed with powerful weapons, one of them a semi-automatic rifle. Clearly, new weapons have been acquired or the IRA was not entirely truthful in September 2005.
On the question of IRA structures, Chief Constable Hamilton had this to say:
At this stage we assess that some Provisional IRA organisational infrastructure continues to exist but has undergone significant change since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Some, primarily operational level structures were changed and some elements have been dissolved completely since 2005.
That tells the public next to nothing and is in dismal contrast to the compelling detail provided by the IMC.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the IRA has taken advantage of the IMC’s dissolution to harden up its husk and to give it some sharp claws. The solution, and perhaps the key to salvaging the peace process, is thus not hard to figure.
Ed Moloney is author of A Secret History of the IRA