IRA Declares End to Armed Campaign
Cathal Mc Naughton  /  Abaca
A billboard on the nationalist Falls Road in west Belfast, Ireland as the IRA called on all its members to stand down their arms at 4 o'clock local time and to pursue their goals by peaceful means.
By Keith Miller Senior foreign correspondent
NBC News
updated 7/28/2005 6:23:03 PM ET 2005-07-28T22:23:03

The Irish Republican Army announced Thursday it will abandon its “armed campaign” and resume disarmament.

NBC News’ Keith Miller discusses how the IRA’s announcement may revive the Northern Ireland peace process, despite the hurdles that still lie ahead, and why it's a crucial move for the IRA to make in order to stay politically relevant. 

What is the significance of Thursday’s announcement by the IRA that it will abandon its “armed campaign” and resume disarmament?
There is no doubt that it is a historic point for the conflict in Northern Ireland. You have Sinn Fein, the political arm, and the IRA, the military arm, all saying that this is now a time for peace, that the time for war is over. 

But, there have been other efforts in the past, and other promises to lay down arms, which have not come true.

The real sticking point here — which causes a lot of skepticism on the part of the Unionists, those who want to stay united with Britain — is the verification process.

In the past the IRA said it would give up its weapons, but they could never agree about how to do that. It may seem like a very small point, but it was a major point for people who still want to have a union with Britain and even among some Catholics who are opposed to the IRA.

It is the verification process — to really show the dismantling and the destroying of the enormous arsenal that the IRA has — that they could never come to an agreement on. and they still haven't. 

We have a statement by the IRA that they are laying down their weapons. But until we actually see the process being verified by an international group, people will continue to be skeptical and probably a lot of people who will not pay it much attention.  

How is this different from previous declarations by the IRA and the cease-fire that it committed to in 1997?
The cease-fire still holds. It’s just that the political cease-fire has never been declared. On the political side, you have a political war, if you will.

Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, obviously feels that it is in a politically strong position now to push its campaign forward for the unification of Ireland. 

This is probably as much a political as a military move, on the part of the IRA, feeling that politically, they are much stronger than they are militarily.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of skepticism about just how much this will affect people on the streets.

With the IRA, as well as with the Protestants, you have these paramilitary groups, which are very powerful and enforce their own laws. We’ll see how many of those characters actually want to give up their weapons, which gives them the power to basically rule some streets within Belfast and in Northern Ireland itself.  

How will the IRA’s statement that “Volunteers must not engage in any other activities whatsoever," affect accusations that the IRA is now largely a criminal organization?
Well there is criminality among both the Catholic and the Protestant military groups. The problem for the IRA is that it has been splintered in the past. And when it does splinter, especially over issues of cease-fires, it has disastrous consequences for civilians.

I think back to the Omagh bombing in 1998.  It was carried out by the provisional arm of the IRA and that resulted in 29 deaths. It was a brutal attack on a shopping center in a small town. 

So, there is the real danger that there are hard-core members within the IRA who will not lay down their arms and will have a splinter group effect off of it and continue what they think is an armed struggle — which also tends to be lucrative for many members.

The IRA has been accused of being involved in drug dealing, money laundering, a $50 million bank robbery and even the murder of a man in a barroom brawl. How will this declaration help clean up its reputation?
The bank robbery in December 2004 had a tremendous impact. Sinn Fein realized that they were losing any support that they had within the governmental structures in both Ireland and Britain because this was a devastating robbery.

Bank robbers stole close to $50 million from the Northern Bank, a Protestant-owned bank in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland they issue their own money. When $50 million was stolen in this incredibly well-timed robbery that was done with military precision, the bank had to basically close down its entire currency trading. It really was crippling. They had to withdraw their paper note currency.

All the signs pointed back to the IRA. It really was a military-style operation with tremendous precision, and the notes were floating mostly in Ireland.

But, this was kind of the last straw. The level of criminality had reached the point of crippling the local economy. The IRA, and specifically Sinn Fein, the political arm, were being shut out. Bertie Ahern, the prime minister of Ireland, wouldn’t have anything to do with them because they had gone a step too far. It was the same with Tony Blair. They just said, this is enough. So, this may have had some impact on the IRA’s decision.

The other was the brutal murder of a Catholic man by IRA thugs. It wasn’t so much just the barroom brawl, it was the fact that the guys who did it were known to everybody but they were never going to be prosecuted because of the closed nature of Catholic Belfast. The threats that if you come forward to the police, you’re going to be next.

Basically this meant that the IRA, or some of its members, were operating with impunity. They were basically ruling the streets like a Middle Age fiefdom. This was completely not acceptable to both the Irish and the British governments.

Sinn Fein has its political arm, but it also has tremendous influence over the military arm, and neither the British nor the Irish were going to deal with them anymore. The military arm of Sinn Fein had just become so unruly and a law unto themselves, that Sinn Fein was being marginalized and basically shut out of the political process.

This may be the only way that they can get back into it. To have an opportunity to achieve what they want to politically, the IRA had to announce the giving up of the guns.

Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, said that “it was the end of war and a time to look for peace.” Most people in Northern Ireland have heard these words before and will wait to see what comes next.

What are some of the long-term obstacles that still have to be overcome in order to successfully form a joint Catholic-Protestant administration that would replace Britain as the primary government authority in Northern Ireland?
The initial and only obstacle is the verification that the guns have been given up and destroyed, or turned in.

Right now we are told that the IRA will have a Catholic and a Protestant priest observe the process. This will not be good enough. The verification will have to involve a local organization which has been set up to monitor disarmament. They will also require photographic evidence. They are going to go further than they did in their statement today in terms of the decommissioning of their weapons before we actually see any movement.

Now one of the obstacles that people are not talking about is that there are also Protestant paramilitary groups who are still armed and still active. So, the Catholic paramilitaries are also worried that if they give up all of their weapons, what about the Protestants?

So we’re going to find ourselves at some point down the road having a heated debate about what is disarmament and what level of disarmament do you go to?

A big problem is the policing. The police department of Northern Ireland is almost entirely Protestant. So the Catholic community does not trust them to keep the peace in their neighborhoods with the same impartiality that they feel they would get if there was more Catholic representation in law enforcement.

So they have relied on the IRA to be the strong arm in their neighborhoods to keep the peace — which they do by knee-capping, temporary kidnappings and banishments.

This is not done with the rule of law. This is done by vigilante justice and often involves different groups persecuting each other for personal reasons, not because of community safety issues.

They are definitely involved in money laundering, drug running and prostitution.

However, at the same time, the local communities allow a certain amount of this to go on, so that they ensure their protection. It is almost like a benign sort of protection racket. The people don’t have to pay the IRA because they make their money through these other illicit actions to keep their members employed and armed.

So, how are you going to get rid of these guys without the communities themselves falling into some level of anarchy or lawlessness?  

There are huge hurdles to go before this is done.

But, nonetheless, one has to go back to the fact that Tony Blair has been struggling for eight years to get this back on track. I think that in the cold light of morning, everyone will say that this is another opportunity to reach peace. What we heard today was a declaration denouncing war, which is the first step. 

How is the timing of this announcement significant? Coming right on the heels of the two London bombings, can you see a connection there?  
I don’t see the connection. I think it’s hugely ironic considering that it was the IRA who started the first terror attacks on London’s transport system. Now you’ve turned from sectarian Catholic terror on the streets of London into Islamic terror. I think there is a sense of irony. 

This is such a complex issue in Northern Ireland, and it has been going on for three decades. They are a stubborn, committed and marginally fanatical group that does not respond to exterior stimulus. They don’t listen to President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair or the Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

They listen to their own inner workings in terms of Republicanism and the unification of Ireland. I doubt at all that they are influenced by what happened in the subways and double-decker buses of London. 

This decision came about after I would say several months of intense debate on the part of the IRA.

A lot of it goes back to the bank robbery, which really crippled the economy, which is what brought Ireland this far to begin with.

John Hume, one of the men who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1998, said years ago that what’s going to save Northern Ireland will be the European Union. He turned out to be absolutely correct.

It turned out to be an economic solution because things got better and once the bank robbery jeopardized that, something had to give.

Keith Miller is an NBC News correspondent based in London.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments