A Gun, a Bomb, and an Irishman

What if the IRA's move to disarm is no joke?


Once upon a time, news that the Irish Republican Army was renouncing violence and disarming would have been a very big deal. Instead the words "all IRA units have been ordered to dump arms" seems to have generated mostly shrugs and second-guessing.

The IRA is not serious or will not follow through, critics say. This overlooks the fact that the IRA had to do something or slide even deeper into irrelevancy in an Ireland chugging along into a new century.

Renouncing violence is certainly a good place to start considering the awful spot the January murder of Robert McCartney put both the IRA and its Sinn Fein political party in. The act, carried out by perhaps free-lancing IRA thugs, was bad enough, but the IRA's back-channel offer to even the score was appalling.

"Sorry about that deadly bar fight, would you like us to kill the guys who killed your guy?" Such a brutal, lawless offer conveyed just how far out of the social mainstream IRA elements continued to operate.

The IRA itself became a dark and anachronistic joke, something it never was in its terrorist heyday, blowing Lord Mountbatten and his grandson out of the water. The McCartney matter caught the attention of the White House, which pointedly excluded Sinn Fein from St. Patrick's Day activities while George Bush met with McCartney's sisters and pledged help to find the killers.

Even Teddy Kennedy turned his back on Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams, and if Teddy turns down a chance to hammer a few with you, you know you've done something very grave indeed.

So by late spring, Adams and his cohorts were stuck in a bad rut. And it surely did not help that the London bombings in July cemented political violence as the weapon of irrational, alien hatred—and nothing like the last resort of just cause. Renouncing violence might just have been the best option they had left.

A fair complaint, of course, might be: "What took so long?" The 1994 "cease fire" the IRA announced was greeted with great fanfare, but there then followed a series of sideways moves, sketchy plans for power-sharing with unionists in the North, and internal IRA politicking by Adams and his allies. What changed?

One change that cannot be ignored is the development of a prosperous Ireland, one that in many ways leads Europe in the high-tech sector and certainly is not afflicted with the growth-killing policies of the continent. The economy grew at a healthy 5 percent clip last year and should do the same this year. Coming on the heels of the double-digit growth of the 1990s and recent oil shocks, the Irish economy appears to have achieved a rare soft landing. With continued strong corporate R&D investment and low tax rates, there is every reason to expect more of the same in the future.

So there is a "get on with the business-of-business" sentiment working against the conflict, but one that—despite the economic growth—is not necessary all about business. Tax evasion and smuggling seem to be regarded as totally legitimate operations in "bandit country."

"It's not all going to fund bloody IRA weapons, everyone does it. They're just trading, and evading tax while they're at it. That's normal, that's Crossmaglen, it's not criminality. The IRA statement won't change that. People are doing well out of it too," one fellow explained to The Sunday Times.

You can see how this view is going to conflict mightily with unionist sentiment that identifies the IRA with crime and crime with the IRA. All is not happiness and light in the wake of the IRA declaration by a longshot.

Some unionist leaders are convinced that British Prime Minister Tony Blair jumped much too quickly to engage the IRA move, too eager to claim a victory against Britain's most implacable terrorist foe while in the midst of fighting off another terror threat. And that may well be true.

Or it might be that by doubling down on the IRA disarm gambit by moving to take down watch towers, de-militarize the North, and remove other symbols of British power, Blair's government has forced the IRA to follow through on the disarmament offer. The ultimate goal, the thing that actually disarming would immediately get the IRA, is participation in a power-sharing government for Northern Ireland, ostensibly free of London's oversight. But plans for that all-Irish government have been sputtering for several years now.

The factions in Ireland then find themselves at what one old Irishman called the "trust, but verify" stage amid all the angst that accompanies it. There are already plans for the IRA disarming process to be witnessed by clergymen—one Protestant, one Catholic. (Two Jews and a cripple get the day off.) But even that may not suffice as proof; tangible photographic evidence of the disarmament process is demanded by some. And so forth.

This sort of nit-picking is inevitable when the stakes are so high, but should not detract from the fact that the process might actually put an end to several centuries of senseless civil strife. If not, well, then the joke will be on all of us.