10 February 1996
A Blast from the Past?
The IRA bomb attack on Canary Wharf on 9 February is an act of desperation
by a beleaguered organisation, writes Mark Ryan.
Far from solving its problems, the end of the ceasefire will only aggravate
the difficulties which the peace process has thrown up for the republican
movement. It is not the case, as many have claimed, that the bombing puts
an end to the peace process itself. This is because the peace process never
had anything to do with bringing peace to the people of Ireland. Rather
it was a strategy aimed at destroying the liberation movement and imposing
a new form of domination on the country.
The peace process has been a disaster for those wanting to bring about a
united Ireland, having reduced to a shambles a once vibrant resistance movement.
The British government promised republicans in secret talks before the ceasefire
that major concessions, even withdrawal, would be on the cards in the event
of a ceasefire. It then spent the next 17 months humiliating Sinn Fein,
imposing one new precondition to entry into all-party talks after another.
The peace process was going from bad to worse for the republican movement.
The announcement by the British government of elections to a new Northern
Ireland assembly last month was bad enough, but the findings of the US-backed
Mitchell report on the decommissioning of arms spelled disaster for the
IRA in particular. The preconditions for Sinn Fein entering all-party talks
which Mitchell introduced - solemn renunciation of violence, handing over
of weapons during talks, the acceptance of the principle of consent by Unionists
- would have meant the final end of the IRA as an organisation and of republicanism
as a movement.
The Canary Wharf bombing is a military response to the failures of the movement's
peace strategy. Throughout the last 25 years, whenever the movement has
got itself into deep water as a result of its political strategy, it has
resorted to military methods to try to extricate itself. This has often
worked in the past. But it will not work this time. Both Sinn Fein and the
IRA have made too many concessions of principle to make possible a return
to the old strategy.
It is clear from the IRA's statement ending the ceasefire that it has learned
nothing from the disasters of the last three years. The statement, and indeed
the whole peace strategy, is based on a fundamental contradiction. On the
one hand, the IRA states its commitment to its republican principles; in
the very next paragraph it demands an 'inclusive negotiated settlement'.
But the two are incompatible. Republican principles demand that a united
Ireland be brought about, whether a minority in the North East wants it
or not. An 'inclusive negotiated settlement' can only come about with the
consent of the unionists. Sinn Fein/IRA was trying to be its old republican
self, and at the same time, a new, trendy, pluralist outfit which could
accommodate to the Unionist position.
The peace process is based on the principle that any settlement must be
a result of agreement between all the 'traditions' in the Six Counties.
Such a principle could only benefit the strongest power - the British government.
But once those principles were accepted by Sinn Fein/IRA, the military campaign
became futile and irrational. You cannot bomb the same people with whom
you are trying to seek agreement. That was why the IRA had little option
but to call the ceasefire in the first place - it was becoming impossible
to square the commitment to 'peace' (read capitulation) with a continuing
military campaign. It is also why the renewed campaign is doomed to failure.
The end of the ceasefire should not be seen as a return to the past. The
days of a republican movement unequivocally committed to a united Ireland
and ready to enforce it are long gone. Rather than abandoning the peace
process, the IRA is trying once again to introduce a military aspect to
Sinn Fein's 'peace strategy'. Under these circumstances, the IRA is setting
itself up as a stage army for Sinn Fein. This attempt to introduce a military
aspect to Sinn Fein strategy is reflected in the choice of Canary Wharf
as a target. Republican strategists have convinced themselves that the two
massive IRA bombs in the City of London in April 1992 and 1993 were decisive
in forcing the British government to make concessions. They are evidently
hoping that the Canary Wharf attack will have the same effect.
The idea that the renewed campaign can win concessions is a fantasy. It
would seem that the IRA is not planning to abandon the peace process (how
can it ditch a strategy which it has pursued for at least six years?). The
IRA statement refers to the failure THUS FAR of the Irish peace process.
The IRA is evidently hoping that it can restart the military campaign without
jeopardising Sinn Fein's continuing involvement in negotiations. What will
really happen is that the bombing, and any other attacks which might follow
will be used to put added pressure on both the IRA and Sinn Fein: on the
one, to hand over their weapons, on the other to renounce the IRA's actions
and accept the Mitchell preconditions. The difference between today and
1993 is that the republicans now have the weight of the Clinton administration
bearing down on them too. In this respect, the proposal from the Dublin
government for 'Dayton-style' proximity talks marks a significant new stage
in the peace process. Such talks would be a major opportunity for everybody
to pile the pressure on Sinn Fein to get the IRA to start handing over its
weapons, to condemn the bombing, and generally to humiliate and force concessions
from the republicans. More importantly, they would be an opportunity for
the US government, whose involvement in the Irish peace process escalates
from week to week, to enforce its own agenda on the people of Ireland. The
one thing such talks would not involve is a democratic resolution to the
One thing is certain. The bombing of Canary Wharf does not mean a return
to an old-style republican military campaign. The only thing it had in common
with a traditional IRA attack was its audacity. But it fell into the pattern
of the peace process, not a war of liberation.
Join a discussion on this commentary