As the Observer Magazine article last Sunday made clear, there is no truth in the rumour that Donegal Celtic have launched a ₤26 million bid to buy David Beckham. However, it now seems certain that the IRA were responsible for the Northern Bank robbery and whilst finding those individuals responsible obviously remains a priority, the motivation for the raid has assumed greater significance now that the peace process appears to be unraveling before our eyes. With the murder of Robert McCartney coming only weeks after the IRA made headline news across the globe, these are dark days indeed.
Of course, this is Northern Ireland and all we’ve all been here before. Just as when talks look to be progressing nicely enough and a crisis of some sort develops overnight, so when prospects appear at their bleakest, a peace process is somehow salvaged from the wreckage. And a well-worn phrase it might be, but it is still important to consider just how far Northern Ireland has come in the last decade.
If any good can come of such a heinous act as the murder of Robert McCartney, let us hope that the IRA are persuaded to end all involvement in acts of criminality and to formally announce the permanent cessation of their ‘armed struggle’. And, save one or two brief periods – the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday; the height of interment; the months following the 81 Hunger Strikes – it always was *their* ‘armed struggle’, and never that of the wider Nationalist community.
Whatever the stark obligations on the IRA, it is worth considering how we got to where we are. In December last year, the IRA offered to destroy all of their weapons in a act of final decommissioning to be witnessed by a senior church member from both communities, together with representatives from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. This offer was rejected because the IRA refused to don the “sackcloth and ashes” Ian Paisley had demanded they should in his now infamous speech, culminating in an IRA refusal to allow the decommissioning to be photographed. Let’s just think about that some more…..the IRA offered to end its war, put its arms beyond permanent use and have this witnessed by respected, independent, apolitical figures of unimpeachable integrity, but this was rejected because DUP politicians who have yet to provide a scintilla of evidence that they are prepared to share power with mandated republicans, failed in their demand for glossy 9×6 prints to mark this momentous occasion. Does anyone seriously question that, had the IRA agreed to pictures, this would have prompted yet more demands, probably including an insistence that the IRA wear Union Jack boxer shorts and sing three verses of ‘The Sash’ as the weapons caches were filled with cement?
With more republicans questioning the role of armed republicanism in a 21st century Northern Ireland, and with public displays of increasing intolerance towards the unaccountable, bully-boy untouchables who throw around their ‘volunteer’ weight with impunity, a conciliatory gesture by the IRA should not be discounted, however counterintuitive that may seem given recent statements from Mr. O’Neill. A BBC poll suggests 6 out of 10 nationalists want the IRA to disband, including nearly 50% of Sinn Fein supporters. Although, interestingly, recent events appear to have done little to dent Sinn Fein’s electoral fortunes. As this weekend’s Co. Meath by-election results in the south have indicated, it doesn’t necessarily follow that grassroots republican disenchantment with the IRA will translate into a loss of support for Sinn Fein at the ballot box. The fact that some Sinn Fein members are also in the IRA is well-known, but the distinction between an paramilitary group and what is now an extremely professional election fighting machine with a finely-tuned political strategy, can be made by those willing to make it. Yesterday’s Orange Order split from the Ulster Unionist Party passed with scarcely a murmur and make no mistake, if Sinn Fein have to disavow the IRA entirely in order to retain their position as fasting growing party in all of Ireland, they will do it.
Even were this to happen, however, I remain pessimistic about the chances of lasting peace in the province. Similarly, I believe the IRA should disband only because this is the right thing to do, not because I believe it would reinvigorate a spluttering peace process. I don’t share the optimism of those who predict a UUP leadership which has only ever paid lip-service to a Good Friday Agreement ratified by 71% of the people of Northern Ireland, and a DUP which, of course, never supported the Good Friday Agreement in the first place, will demonstrate their power-sharing credentials the moment the IRA finally call it a day. Those, the Taoiseach and British Prime Minister among them, who state now that the biggest obstacle to peace in Northern Ireland is violent republicanism, display a unfathomable faith in the leaders of unionism/loyalism and are, in my view, in for a rude awakening the day the Army Council finishes AOB and declares “meeting closed” for the very last time.
If Ian Paisley’s Ballymena speech demonstrated anything, it’s that the leader of the largest party in Northern Ireland seeks victory for unionism and humiliation for republicanism, before and as a prerequisite to peace. Finding rapprochement can be taxing at the best of times, even when it is genuinely sought. It requires you sit down and strike deals not with your friends, but with your sworn enemies. A difficult thing to do and made more so when you’ve grown accustomed to the shelter provided by an acquiescent state leadership seemingly incapable or unwilling to bring you to heel. To listen to Paisley, one could be forgiven for thinking that only unionists can justify a lack of trust in their political opponents. Although, anyone these last 30 years whose main source of information on events in Northern Ireland has been the British press, could hardly avoid a similar conclusion. (That said, it’s truly heartwarming to see newspapers like the Telegraph now championing the cause of Short Strand residents. Where have they been these last 30 years? Where will they be in the years to come if the Sin Fein mandate fails to crumble in the manner they now expect?)
In 1992, an eighteen year-old Catholic named Peter McBride was murdered by two Scots Guards, Corporals Wright and Fisher, in the New Lodge area of Belfast. Sentenced to life imprisonment by a British Judge in a Belfast court, the two Guardsmen were released under special licence in 1998, benefiting from the early release program written into the Good Friday Agreement. Wright and Fisher are certainly not alone in this regard, with many murderers from both sides of the conflict enjoying early release, although it should be understood that there is no pardon or quashing of sentences in such cases – a convicted murderer remains a convicted murderer.
As one can imagine, the family of Peter McBride were less than thrilled to see his killers walk free, but being supporters of the GFA themselves, they recognized that this was just they way things had to be. What neither they nor anyone else foresaw was a decision by the Army Board to invoke their “exceptional circumstances” rule and retain two convicted murderers in their ranks. The “exceptional circumstances” related to an Army Board belief that the soldiers merely made “an error of judgment”, somewhat at odds with the findings of trial Judge Justice Kelly who said: ”the Guardsmen fired on the deceased knowing that they had no justification for doing so”, dismissing the soldiers’ claims that they believed the teenager running away from them had a coffee jar bomb, somewhat unlikely given Peter had only seconds before been stopped and searched by the guardsmen. Peter was shot in the back.
In 2003, the Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled the Army was wrong to retain the men, although it stopped short of calling for their dismissal. Again, in June 2004, the Independent Assessor of Military Complaints Procedures found against the Army, insisting the soldiers should not have been retained.
In recent weeks, the Army has dishonourably discharged 3 men for abuses at Abu Ghraib. Whilst outrageous and indefensible, none of the offences in question compare to murder. Other soldiers found with traces on cannabis in their blood have been shown the door in recent years, and Major Charles Ingram was dismissed for cheating on a TV quiz program. Wright and Fisher, as convicted murderers, may not own a fire-arm or obtain a licence to drive a taxi, but, because of “exceptional circumstances”, they are deemed fit to wear a uniform and take the Queen’s shilling.
If there’s another professional army anywhere in the western world that retains convicted murderers, I’ve yet to learn about it.
A couple of weeks back, Tony Blair apologized (sort of) to the surviving members of the Guildford 4, who spent 14 years in prison as a result of what is euphemistically termed a “miscarriage of justice”, but would be more accurately described as a police fit-up. No officer has ever been charged.
When Justice Cory, a British-appointed Canadian Judge asked to investigate the killings of, amongst other, Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane, concluded there was strong evidence of collusion between government agencies and Loyalist death squads, previously determined by Sir John Stevens, the response of the government to was to delay a public inquiry into the killing of Finucane, prompting the leader of the Ulster Unionists, the ‘moderate’ David Trimble, to slander the murdered lawyer in House of Commons and imply terrorists connections rejected by Hugh Orde himself. A despicable speech which should provoked an outcry from any right-thinking MP, passed almost unnoticed in the British media.
In 2001, Loyalists spent 12 weeks hurling bags of piss and excrement at Catholic schoolchildren walking to school in a dispute which, had it taken place in Arlseley instead of Ardoyne, wouldn’t have lasted into a 3rd day, let alone a 3rd month. The response from at least some of the British press, after clearing their throat with condemnation of the terrorization of 6-year old girls, was to suggest the parents of the schoolchildren should have followed a different route.
And Rosa Parks could have found a different seat.
If this reads like ‘whatabouterey’ at a time when republicanism is rightly under the microscope, then that’s too bad. The day the name “Peter McBride” starts to mean something to the same people whose knowledge of events in Northern Ireland extends to the Northern Bank raid, brutal murders by members of the IRA, but not much more, then a realization that hurt, mistrust and suspicion are not monopolized by one community alone, shouldn’t be too far behind.
If the peace process in Northern Ireland is to bear lasting fruit, it’s not just the trust of those loyal to the Crown that needs to be won. It’s an obvious point, but too few people – certainly too few this side of the water – seem prepared to make it.