The I.R.A.’s Gift of Gab

Ed Moloney is the author, most recently, of A Secret History of the I.R.A. (NEW YORK TIMES, 05/08/05).

Most people in Northern Ireland, in the Irish Republic or among Irish-Americans hope that last week’s statement by the Irish Republican Army ending its armed campaign against British rule of Northern Ireland and embracing only peaceful and democratic methods is truly the «step of unparalleled magnitude» that Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain claims to see.

Yet there are good reasons to be cautious. The I.R.A.’s words are welcome, but there’s an old Irish saw applicable here, which says that fine words butter no parsnips. The I.R.A. and leaders of its political wing, Sinn Fein, like Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, have made impressive, even dramatic promises in the past but subsequent deeds failed to match them.

Not only that, but the moves made by the I.R.A. last week were cost-free. The last shots fired in anger by the I.R.A. at British security forces were in the summer of 1997, and the reality is that its campaign against Britain has been over for years. Last week’s statement was merely an admission of an already established fact.

Equally, Sinn Fein, and those among its leadership who double as I.R.A. leaders and commanders, have committed themselves before to peaceful and democratic methods. Indeed, Mr. Adams would not have been allowed into political talks in 1998 about Northern Ireland’s future unless he had subscribed to principles embodying such a commitment.

In spite of that pledge, I.R.A. activity, albeit at a much lower level, persisted and pitched the Irish peace process into one crisis after another. A real sign of change would have been an announcement that the I.R.A. was disbanding, but that was absent from the statement, as was any pledge to end recruitment.

The events that provoked last week’s statement – the robbery of more than $50 million from a Belfast bank last December and the subsequent killing of a Belfast Catholic, Robert McCartney, by what are generally believed to be I.R.A. members – showed that the conventional test of I.R.A. sincerity, its willingness to disarm transparently, was made largely irrelevant. The I.R.A. didn’t need tons of Semtex explosives or heavy machine guns to commit those crimes. All it needed was a few motivated members. The problem was not I.R.A. weapons but the I.R.A. itself.

The experience of the last 11 years of the Irish peace process is that continued I.R.A. activity has sapped the trust of the majority Protestant community and made its political leaders reluctant to enter into a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein in 1998.

But Sinn Fein has turned that to its electoral advantage, charging Protestants with bigotry, and seeking sympathy and solidarity from Catholics in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The result is that Sinn Fein is now the largest Catholic party in Northern Ireland and has seats in the London, Dublin, Belfast and European Parliaments. Final peace has been delayed for narrow political gain.

The I.R.A.’s refusal to begin disbanding is one big reason instability still exists. The Belfast bank robbery illustrated the way such instability can be fostered.

While the I.R.A.’s war against Britain has diminished during the last eight years, the organization’s drift into racketeering has accelerated. Ian Pearson, a former security minister in Northern Ireland, recently called the I.R.A. «perhaps the most sophisticated organized criminal grouping» anywhere in Europe. Few experts expect such activity will cease because of last week’s statement.

The criminality linked to groups like the I.R.A. is staggering. One recent British government report estimated that there were 140 paramiltary-associated criminal gangs, many with international connections, operating in an area that in terms of population is about the size of the Bronx. In 2002, the police confiscated more counterfeit currency and goods – CD’s, DVD’s, watches, clothes, software – in Northern Ireland than in all of Britain. Cigarette and gasoline smuggling, protection rackets, armed robberies and hijackings are rife.

The I.R.A.’s involvement in this illegal activity has produced a leadership cadre that has combined ruthless paramilitary activism with lucrative criminal sidelines. Figures with no visible means of support have in the last few years suddenly become property moguls and business owners with luxury vacation houses in Ireland and in foreign resorts.

The Bush administration’s attempts to press both London and Dublin to act against these criminals have met with limited success. Suspicion is widespread that Mr. Blair and his counterpart in Dublin, Bertie Ahern, would rather leave that problem alone because they fear moving against paramilitary crime would cause discontent in I.R.A. ranks with Mr. Adams’s stewardship.

There are other signs that in Britain and Ireland the political will to tackle this crime is lacking. A proposal by Ronald Goldstock, former director of New York State’s Organized Crime Task Force, to introduce laws similar to those spelled out in United States’ Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was rejected by Mr. Blair’s government. The authorities in Dublin and London have the power to confiscate criminal assets but have yet to use it against major I.R.A. figures.

Rooting out the forces behind paramilitary racketeering is not only the right thing to do, it is the sensible course as well. Pouring the necessary resources into pursuing these criminals would help remove a potential source of future instability in the peace process and convince skeptics that the influence of groups like the I.R.A. is on the wane. But failure to do so will turn last week’s announcement into just another in a long line of false beginnings.