File photo of Declan, nephew of murdered Northern Ireland man Robert McCartney, stands near poster during a mass rally in east Belfast
Paul Mcerlane  /  Reuters file
Declan, nephew of murdered Northern Ireland man Robert McCartney, who was knifed to death in a bar fight in January in a killing some blame on IRA members, stands near a poster during a mass rally in the Short Strand area of east Belfast, Northern Ireland, in this file photo.
By London bureau chief
NBC News
updated 7/29/2005 9:03:39 PM ET 2005-07-30T01:03:39

It is news to warm the cockles of the heart. The IRA is laying down its arms, or so it says, and “renouncing violence as a political weapon.”

Its leadership has formally ordered an end to its armed and bloody campaign.

So no more shootings, no more bombings, no more maiming, no more murders?

It is easy to understand those who are not yet jumping for joy.

36 years of violence hard to forget in a day
Some 3,600 people have died in the violence of the past 36 years. Some 45,000 have been wounded and hurt, many grievously. As one of them pointed out Friday, they do not have the choice of renouncing their injuries.

More than half of those who have died have done so at the hands of the IRA or republican splinter groups. They may have been the most murderous, but they have not held a monopoly over terror.

The so-called “loyalist” paramilitaries — those loyal to British rule in Northern Ireland — can claim the dubious credit of having done their share of the dirty work.

Three hundred thousand troops have been deployed in the province during this time.

Security forces, once welcomed as the “peacekeepers,” have killed — and been killed — in their turn.

It is not hard to understand the doubters when they hear the men of violence declare their new-found love of peace. The history of Northern Ireland is littered with broken promises, of cease-fires that ended in bloodshed.

Among those who have good reason for doubt, one still-grieving father spoke out on Friday about the loss of his 17-month-old son, in a bombing on Belfast’s Shankhill Road more than 30 years ago.  He, and the many thousands like him, will take some convincing.

Their scars will be a long time healing. A whole generation has known nothing other than trouble and grief.

No saints on either side 
The history of Irish terrorism is as complicated as the history of the divided island itself.

Other than its willingness to use violence, there is little about the IRA you can take on face value. There’s always an end game. Nothing is as obvious as it seems.

If it is giving up violence, it is not because its members think they were wrong. It is because it no longer serves their purpose for now.

Listen to Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, long suspected of being a leading force in the IRA, "There’s a time to resist, to stand up and to confront the enemy by arms if necessary. In other words, there is a time for war. There is also a time to engage, to reach out, to put the war behind us all."

The IRA offers no apology as part of its declaration of an end to the conflict. Its statement simply acknowledges that many have suffered during it. “We reiterate our view that the armed struggle was entirely legitimate,” it says.

Since the “Troubles” broke out in 1969, the IRA has reinvented itself many times. Its stated aim — the reunification of Ireland — is no doubt a noble cause to people of that persuasion. Its murderous methods are not.

Northern Ireland’s “loyalist” counterparts are no better. For years they proclaimed allegiance to the Queen while looking to terrorize her subjects in the minority Catholic community.

It was the baying Protestant mobs of the late sixties that gave the IRA their chance to become the “protectors” of their own communities.

But that was then. Paramilitary activities on both sides have long become a useful disguise for some of the biggest racketeering, drug dealing and organized crime in modern times. Godfathers and gangsters masquerading under the banner of “freedom fighters.”

They have added their own unlovely vocabulary to our language: punishment shootings and kneecapping — both examples of rough justice and a means of keeping control.

Last straws
Just a few months ago the IRA was implicated in a $50 million bank heist. Its members were also behind the brutal slaying of a Catholic man outside a pub — a murder that caused revulsion among its own supporters, reverberated around the world and echoed in the White House.

For many, these were the last straws. The brains behind the IRA recognized it was time to try something else.

Some will see this as scheming pragmatism, some as a Damascene moment, others as the IRA’s surrender. Be that as it may, many will not care what it is, as long as it is real and lasting.

For British Prime Minister Tony Blair, this moment is the result of years of hard work, by him and others before him. He has been criticized for cozying up to the IRA, for taking tea with terrorists. He will no doubt feel some vindication that the rhetoric of peace may now become the language of reality.

“This may be the day,” he said of the IRA declaration, “when finally — after all the false dawns and dashed hope — peace replaces war, politics replaces terror on the island of Ireland.”

One terrorist replaced by another
The irony is not lost on us here  — on the island of England, Wales and Scotland — that just as one threat goes away, another has already risen to take its place.

As I write this, the anti-terror squads are again in action on the streets of London. Once they were there to deal with the threat of IRA bombs. Now they are trying to keep a new breed of terrorists at bay. Their cause may be different — the consequences of their actions are not.

We are again mourning the innocent victims of indiscriminate murder.

Yes, we have been here before. I fear we will be here for a while to come, whether the IRA declares peace or not.

Chris Hampson is the NBC News London bureau chief.


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