Most viewers must be completely confused by what is happening now in Northern Ireland. Just four months ago, its long, drawn-out peace process seemed on the verge of completion, with the humbled Provisionals finally agreeing to the decommissioning of all their weapons, and in return the Democratic Unionists, under the Reverend Ian Paisley's hardline leadership, agreeing to the resumption of power-sharing in the province with Sinn Fein - the political wing of the PIRA - though no one could be sure because the media had long lost interest in reporting miniscule movements by the various parties on the assumption that the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) was really a done deal.
Then the whole process fell apart, once it became known last December that the London and Dublin governments had added a secret protocol to the agreement about the handling of paramilitary operatives in prison and on the run once peace was agreed to. Then there was an unprecedented robbery of the Northern Bank - apparently an inside job since it was carried out so effortlessly - which the Chief Constable of the PSNI Hugh Orde soon blamed on the Provisionals, corroborating what Paisley had immediately contended - but without either of them providing any evidence or indictments to back up their claims.
Then an Irish blogger in Dundalk, with apparently the highest government connections, trashed the Republic's Gardai police force as little more than a tool of the PIRA, allowing the Provisionals to carry out criminal activities there with impunity, and, on at least one occasion, setting up troublesome RUC SB investigators from the North for assassination by the Provisionals. The site was allegedly administered by Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, brother of the country's Prime Minister Bertie Ahern who had agreed under the terms of the secret protocol to an amnesty for the four PIRA killers of Garda Jerry McCabe during an earlier bank robbery, two of whom had been convicted in absentia, and were still on the run.
Then an American blogger with the best whistleblowing credentials, John Young of cryptome.org,
published allegedly the complete lists of Provisional membership, showing that its leaders and those of Sinn Fein were one and the same, and, if true, made the political wing a criminal one since membership in the PIRA is proscribed by law. As if to prove the point, there was the timely killing of a Catholic, Robert McCartney, in a bar frequented by Provisional operatives in Belfast which the governments in Dublin, London, and Washington used against Sinn Fein to see to the indictment of his killers while destroying itself in the process.
While this series of events seemed unconnected, the process was apparently a coordinated one to separate Sinn Fein, the Republican party, from its paramilitary wing, PIRA, through institutional, political, legal, law-enforcement, and social means - clearly intended to fragment Ulster's nationalist community in ways which would assist its more moderate elements, especially the Social Democratic and Labour Party, in up-coming elections, making the possibility of restoring provincial government with the Unionists at Stormont Castle much more likely while Sinn Fein was confined to the political wilderness, and its military wing left to law-enforcement to finally eliminate.
The whole process seems reminiscent of how Britain has reacted to the threat of Irish self-rule, going back, at least, 125 years ago to the rise of Charles Stewart Parnell's Nationalists. After the Conservative government in London had tried unsuccessfully to suppress Parnell's movement through coercion acts, William Gladstone of the Liberals, given a parliamentary majority in the 1880 General Election, was toying with the idea of giving Ireland self-rule instead - the assassinations of the Prime Minister's son-in-law, Viceroy Lord Frederick Cavendish, and Under Secretary Thomas Burke in Dublin's Phoenix Park on May 6, 1882 by a forerunner of the IRA, the Invincibles, having proved the necessary catalyst for radical change.
It was soon thought that the growning alliance between the Liberals and the Nationalists would end Irish political cycles of frustrated constitutional change between the islands; followed by violent, indigenous action in Ireland to change the relationship unilaterally, and finally periods of economic palliatives to satisfy agitation for reform in Ireland in the hope that they would kill off demands for self-rule - what threatened not only independence for the island but also imperial decline throughout the world.
Successful passage of Irish Home Rule required the Prime Minister to mount another popular campaign in the constituences for radical change - like his Midlothian campaign against continental despotism in 1879 to regain power.
The only trouble with Gladstone's effort was that a most important leader of it, Oxford's Vinerian Professor of Law A. V. Dicey, decided on most suspect evidence - the reprinting of an article he wrote for E. L. Godkin's The Nation in New York in favor of the change in Patrick Ford's Irish World, a mouthpiece of the Invincibles, with his denunciation of the Phoenix Park murders left out - leaving the professor to conclude that Parnell was no parliamentarian but a supporter of the Irish-American paramilitaries, the Clan na Gael. To counter Parnell's alleged terrorism, Dicey, with the help of The Times, Liberal sceptics of Home Rule, especially Joseph Chamberlain, officials at Dublin Castle, particularly District Inspector W. H. Joyce, and Edward Caulfield Houston's Irish Loyal and Patrick Union, mounted a crusade to kill the campaign. Its centerpiece was forgeries, prepared by the ILPU's Richard Pigott and others, making it look like Parnell supported the Clan's terrorist bombing campaign.
While Dicey's campaign was ultimately proven to be fraudulent by the Parnell Commission, though, he himself escaped exposure, so much dirt had been thrown up in the process, especially claims of adultery by Sir Charles Dilke, a vigorous Liberal supporter of Home Rule, and Parnell himself, that he was destroyed politically by the blowback. Dicey tried to make amends for what he had done by supporting a renewed effort for Home Rule without Parnell, but it failed because of too many competing agendas. The Times was particularly effective in this regard, advertising Dicey's earlier efforts in its columns, Parnell's adultery with the wife, Kitty, of Captain Willie O'Shea, and his aquiesence in it. Parnell lost the resulting power struggle within the Nationalist Party, dying in the process. Pigott had committed suicide after his role in making the forgeries had been exposed before the Commission.
The plan, though apparently not conceived consciously in toto from its inception, was a classic example of divide and rule, a process which guaranteed that constitutional relations between Great Britain and Ireland would remain the same. Just the slightest inkling that Parnell was not the parliamentary gentleman he professed to be than important institutions, individuals, and ideas were given prominence which fractured the alliance the Nationalists had with the Liberals, Gladstone's leadership of the English party, Parnell's independence from the Irish physical force parties, and his control over his own followers.
Proposed radical reform in well-entrenched, traditional societies needs fragmented opposition to what is attempting, and few competing aims not to be blown completely off course if it is to be successful.
When the next chance for Irish Home Rule came around during Campbell-Bannerman's Liberal government early in the 20th century, it failed just before the opening of WWI because of the Lords' opposition - what required passage of the Parliament Act first to surmount their absolute veto - thanks to Dicey's helping mobilize Unionists and the British Army against the move, and Campbell-Bannerman's successor, Herbert Asquith, deciding, consequently, to postpone its implementation until the war's conclusion. By this time, the British party system, bureaucracy, media, and society had become well enough organized to stop any easy establishment of Irish home rule.
The war proved so long, and costly, though, that the Irish Republican Army ultimately decided to achieve self-rule by force - thanks to the catalyst provided by Padraic Pearse's 1916 Easter uprising - what was achieved for all but Ulster after the Anglo-Irish War. The Government of Ireland Act, 1920 - Dicey's legal legacy for the conflict - established the institutional framework for the new governments in Dublin and Belfast.
During the next half-century, Northern Ireland became a microcosm of what had existed for the whole island before - only with the roles of Unionists and Nationalists in government and society essentially reversed and institutionalized. Northern Ireland became a Protestant statelet - with the Catholic minority politically impotent, socially ghettoized, and economically discriminated against - though the nationalist community began to see improvement, and experience a sense of rising expectations during and after WWII. The IRA had been increasingly mariginalized during the process, with its support centered in the South, and its operations directed more against the Dublin government and the British mainland.
To correct the grievances of the Catholic minority in the North, the Civil Rights Movement got started in the late 1960s, taking advantage of the groundwork Northern Ireland's Prime Minister Captain Terrence O'Neill had laid for economic and social reform. The demands for it, of course, aroused the deepest fear among Unionists, especially Paisley, that their political dominance could soon be in jeopardy, and the marches for reform in Dungannon and Derry resulted in increasing civil disorder - thanks particularly to the Ulster Volunteer Force's declaration of war on the IRA and the Catholic minority on May 21, 1966. The first victims of The Troubles were Peter Ward and John Sullivan, Catholics assassinated by Gusty Spence's UVF's killers.
In light of the increasing inability of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to keep order, and prevent Protestants and Catholics from killing one another, Harold Wilson's Labour government called in 15,000 British troops, including SAS special forces, in August 1969 to help the police keep order, and to bolster the regime. In doing so, the British military resorted to heavy-handed policies it had used in the colonies -like breaking up No-Go areas in nationalist ghettoes, instituting curfews, and implementing internment without trial but with mistreatment for suspect Catholics - and too aggressive security operations, notably 'Bloody Sunday', for dealing with disorder in a post-industrial, democratic society. Consequently, the troops' peacekeeping soon degenerated into containing increasingly hostile Catholic areas, as the IRA and expansive Irish nationalism were revived in the process. The political fallout resulted in the end of the Stormont regime in March 1972.
Direct rule from London, contrary to all expectations, just compounded Britain's Irish problems. While central control made military operations more effective, the alienation and blowback from the Nationalists just continued to rise, making the resortation of provincial rule, and a permanent ceasefire by the Provisionals - despite some hopeful signs, especially the National Executive to be established under the terms of the Sunningdale Agreement - increasingly difficult. The Ulster Workers' Council, Paisley's
Unionists, and Spence's paramilitaries prevented its implementation by bringing the province to a halt with a general strike which the British Army, reminiscent of Dicey's days, refused to quash.
Behind the scenes, though, counterterrorist officials continued to believe that more effective use of the British Army, especially the Mobile Reconnaisance Force (MRF) and the SAS, and less reliance upon the RUC's Special Branch could bring about the military defeat of the PIRA. Through soldiers operating in plain clothes, and assuming local identities and roles, MRFsquads, along with the help of 'turned' Provisionals, and touts they recruited within the movement, were able to so frustrate IRA operations, and decimate its ranks that by the time the Thatcher government came along, it thought military victory probable, deciding to crush its imprisoned members complaining about being treated as common criminals.
The Callaghan government had instituted the policy the Gardiner Committee had recommended to undermine popular support for the Provisionals, and its prisoners had responded by mounting their famous 'dirty' campaign - fouling their new cells with their own excrement, and wearing only blankets. By this time, British covert operations on both sides of the border had been so effective in capturing terrorists, and stopping bombings in the province that the Provisionals, like the IRA had done before WWII, resorted to taking their campaign to the mainland while the Northern Ireland Peace Movement was making inroads against the appeal of the Republican paramilitaries.
The consequent effort by London to turn responsibilites increasingly over to officials back in Northern Ireland - 'Ulsterization' - was stymied, though, by the refusal of the Royal Ulster Constabulary to be seriously reformed, the rise of the Provisional Hunger Strikers, and Britain's embroilment in the Falklands War. While London resorted to the greater use of informers among both republican and loyalist paramilitaries, so-called supergrasses, and Diplock courts, special ones without the usual safeguards for defendants, to keep the extremists at bay, the election of dying Hunger Striker Bobby Sands to a seat in the British parliament more than compensated for covert setbacks among Nationalists - a shot in the arm of the republican movement much like the Easter Uprising of 1916.
London compounded its problems by reacting to the PIRA bombings in Hyde Park during July 1982 by beefing up RUC's Headquarters Mobile Support Units with British Army personnel, especially Life Guards Captain Simon Hayward who lost several colleagues in the bombings - what led to the so-called Shoot-to-Kill murders in South Armagh during the fall. To stem the fallout, London was obliged to seek greater cooperation with the government in Dublin to stop cross-border attacks by Republicans, greater commitment among Nationalists for working out a deal with Unionists to re-establish provincial government without the Provisionals, and to appoint Deputy Chief Constable of the Greater Manchester Police Force John Stalker to investigate the killings of the six unarmed volunteers.
During 1985, The Troubles became internationalized into the Cold War in the response to the Provisionals' bombing of the Grand Hotel in Brighton at the Conservative Party Conference the previous October. London was becoming increasingly concerned about the heavy arms they were receiving from Libya on Adrian Hopkins' Casamara, and their ability to carry out increasingly deadly attacks - especially the one on the Newry police station on February 28, 1985, killing nine police officers - that Thatcher was finally willing to work in a coordinated way with Dublin and Washington to stem the threats. While most commentators saw the mortar attack as the RUC's equivalent of the 1979 Warrenpoint attack which killed 18 soliders of the Parachute Regiment - along with Lord Mountbatten on the same day in a separate assassination - it was actually a milestone of things to come.
The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in the middle of November 1985 to insure that any constitutional change in Northern Ireland would only be achieved by the consent of its people, though the Anglo-Irish Conference would help coordinate policy for the whole island, especially in counterterrorism. In Washington, similar hush-hush consultations with Reagan's National Security Council resulted in a coordinated policy for getting rid of the Soviet Union in a non-nuclear conclusion to the Cold War, but at the expense of its apparent surrogates, Sweden and Libya, who helped the Provisionals in their terrorism. Statsminister Olof Palme, who was providing a platform for its operations, and apologies for similar terrorists worldwide, would be killed as compensation for Mountbatten's murder on the first anniversary of the deadly Newry RUC station bombing, and Muammar Qaddafi's troublemaking regime would be consigned to history's dustbin in the process.
While 1985 - The Year of the Spy - provided the means for most of this, fortunately, not happening - the Soviets were supplied with all kinds of warnings from spies Aldrich 'Rick' Ames, Robert Hanssen, Jonathan Pollard, and others in order to take appropriate counter measures (See my articles in the Trowbridge Archive about them.) - the fallout from all the plotting had a deadly effect upon the province. The most important problem was caused by the falling out of the personnel involved with killing Palme with those who were most responsible for conducting counterterrorism, especially the Army's successor to the MRF, the Force Research Unit. The catalyst for the explosion was supplying Palme's apparent assassin, Captain Hayward - aka Captain James Rennie, the Ops Officer of the 14 Intelligence Company's South Detachment - to help the FRU capture the Eksund, Hopkins' latest ship filled with 150 tons of Libyan arms.
To cature the Eksund, the FRU was highly dependent upon the information that its highest informer within the PIRA Council, code-named 'Steak knife' aka DUKE, provided, and he would not tolerate Hayward's continued freedom - given what he had done in N. I. and Sweden - if the operation was to succeed. By this time, Stalker's inquiry had been stalled by connecting him falsely to Hayward's brother, Christopher, and his drug smuggling, and 'Steak knife' had learned of Simon's shooting through PIRA prisoners in Brixton Prison from what convicted spy Michael Bettaney had told them about MI5 operations with him. The result was a war within a war: while the terrorists and counterterrorists were doing their thing, a war between Hayward and his followers was being conducted yet more behind the scenes with 'Steak knife' and his supporters.
In the process of capturing the Eksund - what required a few murders in N. I. to protect 'Steak knife's role, and the Provisionals used to settle a few old scores - especially the assassinations of Lady and Lord Chief Justice of Appeal Sir Maurice Gibson who had been so protective and promotive of Hayward's killings - he was locked up in Sweden on a trumped up drug smuggling charge despite his effort to kill 'Steak knife' for setting him up. The result was the killing of a substitute by the FRU, Francisco Notarantonio, and this caused the blowback killing of the loyalist leader, John McMichael, for fear that he had protected 'Steak knife' from assassination.
Soon the war within the war just became part of a grander war which lost all focus, and limitations.
Downing Street, once Hayward had been safely locked up in Sweden, tried finally to get 'Steak knife' fatally betrayed to his Provisional associates in the operation involving the PIRA volunteers in Gibraltar to blow up troops during the changing of the guard in March 1988, but so overdid it that his role in the process escaped notice while he returned to the PIRA fold to carry out much more effective killings.
And Hayward just made matters worse from prison by trying to kill 'Steak knife' again - what the FRU re-directed against Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane in February 1989 - and wrote his autobiography Under Fire: My Own Story, with official support, which was so damaging of Thatcher's government in its treatment of him that the Prime Minister sacked the ministers most responsible, Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe, and SOD George Younger, and started seeking peace with the Provisionals with her reformed Cabinet.
It took the better part of a decade to start to achieve. Thatcher's ministry collapsed because her initiative got nowhere with the increasingly revivified PIRA Council, thanks to 'Steak knife's renewed efforts, and threatening the use of suicide bombers, while the London government was wracked by alarming revelations about British Army collusion, centered around FRU Brian Nelson in the Ulster Defence Association, in the increasing sectarian terror campaigns - what Sir John Stevens, Deputy Chief Constable of Cambridgeshire, was appointed to investigate. While Sinn Fein desperately tried to regain control of the PIRA, its volunteers were so confident of victory that their operations were rarely vetted, and the leaderless loyalists, thanks to Stevens' long inquiries and limited prosecutions, reciprocated in kind.
The Army Council only agreed to a temporary four-month ceasefire in 1994 - what John Major's government assumed, as it was extended, it could make into a permanent one, and what it thought it could finagle into a permanent decommissioning of all PIRA weapons. It was only after the Canary Wharf, and NI HQ bombings, though, that Sinn Fein had prevailed upon the Army Council to allow it to agree to the Good Friday Declaration in 1998. Another 18 months later, once the last of the paramilitaries in prison had been granted early release by November 1999, a power-sharing executive was started, and a North-South ministerial council had been appointed.
Though the power-sharing executive was suspended time after time because of the Provisionals' failure to decommission finally its heavy weapons, it seemed they would, once Chris Patten's plans for reforming the RUC into a new police service, the PSNI, began to be implemented. Then the signatories of the Good Friday Agreement agreed at Weston Park to make a serious effort to solve the still outstanding
murders, and disappearances - in which British Army collusion in sectarian killings, especially of Catholics, and Belfast solicitors Finucane and Rosemary Nelson, was the centerpiece.
Of course, everyone, especially the media, assumed that this was the beginning of the end of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The basic framework had been set up - and was in the process of being filled in, and functioning - so, it seemed, it was just a matter of time before the process was completed. Concessions were being granted by the various parties, and reforms being effected which would lead to more compromises apparently - what would mean a power-sharing, democratic government which had finally bridged the sectarian divide, and was starting to use its powers on an equitable basis.
Actually, these expectations were most unfounded, as none of the parties believed that they were in the process of achieving an acceptable compromise. Sinn Fein (aka the PIRA), the British government, and the DUP all believed that they had achieved victory. Lesser players, like the Dublin government, SDLP, and David Trimble's Ulster Unionists, thought that they had come through a most difficult process in far better condition than they had expected, and were confident that future developments would only improve their prospects. In sum, instead of the context having been a flexible one where everyone could expect a bit more of an expanding pie, it was still a most bitter zero-sum contest in which winners were confident of taking most, if not all.
The unraveling of expectations began almost immediately when the Provisionals tried to rein in backaway elements, especially the 'Real' IRA after the deadly bombing at Omagh on August 15, 1998 which killed 29 people and injured over 300. To prevent Trimble from wrongly blaming a similar incident on the PIRA, the Army Council sent 'Steak knife' in August 2001 to Colombia to collar three loose volunteers who were apparently there to train FARC rebels in guerrilla tactics, but they were arrested while trying to make their escape. Securocrats in Dublin and Belfast were most eager to make the most of the intrusion into Washington's backyard, and the efforts finally succeeded late last year with the men receiving stiff sentences for travelling under false passports.
Then two years ago, on St. Patrick's Day, three unmasked men, using British Army identity cards, walked into the Castlereagh police security complex in East Belfast, made straight for the Special Branch office on the first floor which is manned around the clock, knocked out the constable on duty, and then made off with all kinds of documents and notebooks concerning operations, informants, and agents. While it was originally seen as a inside job, given the ease with which the operation was carried out, and the demoralized state of SB in the new PSNI, they were quick to change the focus of their investigation upon the Provisionals, though no one has even been indicted, and convicted of the crime.
The Blair ministry, already convinced that Sinn Fein was conducting a spying operation upon the other parties in the power-sharing government from its offices in Stormont Castle, decided that this was the last straw when it came to alleged double-dealing by the Provisionals, suspending the provincial government until they either finally decommissioned their weapons, or new elections provided an assembly whose parties could work better together. London's gamble failed miserably, however, with only Sinn Fein and Paisley's DUP benefiting by the poll.
The Prime Minister's dealing with his increasingly disgruntled securocrats, past and present, fared no better. They, not having been a party to the Weston Park agreement, were upset that the unsolved killing of former colleagues was not given a higher priority, and more was not being done to give former agents, like Hayward and Nelson, new identities and lives. Downing Street seemed more interested in solving embarrassing killings, like those of Finucane and Nelson. To rid people of this misconception, retired Canadian judge Peter Cory was appointed to look into murders in which British collusion was suspected, Downing Street assuming that he would find none, only for him to recommend six such inquiries despite the greatest impediments from British officials.
The recommended inquiry into the murders of RUC SB Chief Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Bob Buchanan when they were returning from the Republic in 1989 after consultations with the Gardai only spread the problems to Bertie Ahern's government in Dublin, as it was claimed that they had been betrayed to the Provisionals, like the Gibsons two years earlier, by Garda SB detective
sergeant Owen Corrigan. The Ahern government had never been comfortable with the peace process - what threatened to benefit Sinn Fein at Finna Fail's expense - and now an inquiry was to take place which would politicize his own securocrats since it was bound to investigate Corrigan's cross-border activities in great detail.
To turn things completely around, London and Dublin agreed to release the secret protocol to the GFA which only they had agreed to, and would only anger the Gardai more since it promised anmesty for Jerry McCabe's killers - two of whom were still on the run, and had never been incarcerated. Then the unprecedented robbery of the Northern Bank raised the matter of how to treat robbers to new heights, as it was quickly blamed upon the Provisionals by the PSNI's Chief Constable Orde, though he declined to provide evidence or indict anyone for the crime. The fraudulent Dundalk Blogger, having no connected to Foreign Secretary Demot Ahern, then connected the Provisionals' alleged criminal activites to the Dundalk area where the retired Corrigan was running his own pub in Drogheda. John Young's web site than lumped Sinn Fein, the Provisionals, and their supporters all together by publishing lists of alleged IRA members. The process was completed by London, Dublin and Washington blaming them for the murder of Robert McCartney in a Belfast, barroom brawl a few weeks later.
Whether this winner-take-all approach to settling the troubles works, remains to be seen. If the upcoming elections in Britain and Ireland strengthen FF, the SDLP and modernate Unionists, then the gambit will have succeeded. If history is any guide, though, it won't as relations seem doomed to go round in circles in Ireland.