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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 problem.

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.
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