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Taking the Guns Out of Irish Politics

by Sean McDougall on Oct 15, 1998

The decommissioning of weapons in Northern Ireland ought to be a simple enough affair.

The parties which previously spoke for terrorist organizations on both extremes of the political spectrum are now locked in dialogue and committed to principles of nonviolence. All but one of the myriad terrorist organizations has now declared a cease-fire. An international decommissioning body has been appointed to help with the disposal of weapons. Moreover, the British and Irish governments are in complete agreement as to how to proceed.

It seems strange, in that light, that six months after the parties negotiated a peaceful framework for progress — now known as the Good Friday Agreement — not one of the millions of bullets, thousands of rifles or tons of explosives has been removed from the terrorist arsenal. The reason is that historical factors are at work. But as so often happens they are as much a hindrance as a help.

On October 11, in the republican village of Rosslea, Northern Ireland, a plaque linking a rebellion that occurred in 1798 and the present IRA’s campaign since 1969 was unveiled. Many republicans — including most of those who support the IRA — see the last eight hundred years as a period of continual resistance to British rule in Ireland. Contemplating an end to violence, they feel they must not do anything that would result in the struggle being seen as having ended in defeat. By handing in weapons, many feel that they would, in effect, be surrendering.

However, as the Irish president, Mary McAleese, said recently, it is not our job to unwrite history, it is merely to script a new history. The refusal of the main republican terrorist group, the IRA, to decommission its weapons and join with others in shaping a peaceful future is the most worrying aspect of the current situation, for it holds forth the prospect of a return to violence in the future.

It is already clear that the detonators used in the recent bombing atrocity in the village of Omagh, Northern Ireland, were taken from an IRA arms dump by dissidents. Twenty-nine people died and more than three hundred were injured in this unprovoked attack. Such piracy should have been anticipated. The present IRA is itself a breakaway faction which, in 1970, armed itself by raiding other groups’ arsenals.

Sean O’Callaghan, a former senior IRA officer turned informer, recalls that his first task upon joining up was to dig up some Second World War Lee Enfield rifles: they were in perfect condition, well greased and securely stored — just as two tons of Libyan-supplied Semtex explosive and thousands of East European rifles are today held in secret locations all over Ireland.

By refusing to reveal the location of these weapons, the modern IRA, and its republican sympathizers, effectively reserve the right of a future generation to take up arms again. One breakaway faction, calling itself the “Real” IRA, has already caused the death of dozens of people. Can we be sure that they will not be followed by others?

Each generation rewrites the past according to its own interests. Political activists sometimes explain the refusal to decommission terrorist weaponry by claiming that such an action is without precedent in Ireland. But are precedents relevant when lives are at stake?

Moreover, politicians should be corrected when they make such inaccurate claims. In fact, there is a history of arms decommissioning in Ireland, but it is not one which would appeal much to the IRA or its republican sympathizers. In Easter 1916, as others began the Rising in Dublin, the Cork contingent of the Irish Republican Brotherhood handed its weapons over to members of the clergy known to have been in discussion with the British authorities.

Following the Irish War of Independence, which led to the creation of Northern and Southern Ireland, the British Army handed weapons over for the use of the embryonic Irish Army. Through local and unofficial agreements many IRA weapons likewise made their way into the arsenal. Other weapons were handed in on loan in 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, never to be reclaimed.

There are other precedents to be found elsewhere. In the 1980s one branch of ETA, the Basque terrorist organization, simply destroyed its own weapons. In the early 1990s, the various factions in El Salvador decommissioned their weapons by using the United Nations as an intermediary.

Loyalist terrorists in Northern Ireland have offered to decommission in parallel with their republican counterparts. The time has now come for the IRA to begin that process. If it does not, then people who are not yet born may die as a historic conflict enters its ninth century.


Sean McDougall is Research Fellow at the Institute of Contemporary British History, University of London. He co-edited "The Northern Ireland Question in British Politics" (1996).