Home Info Nordirland / Baskenland


Background >>

Video / Audio >>


News >>

Video / Audio >>

Archive >>

Forget the weapons and learn to trust Sinn Fein

31.10.1999 | Sunday Times

Michael Oatley, a former MI6 officer who held secret talks with the IRA, says decommissioning doesn't matter: Sinn Féin is serious about peace

From the beginning the peace process has been crippled by the question of decommissioning terrorist weapons. It stopped the process in its tracks under the last Conservative government and still threatens to destroy it.

Yet the issue has never been presented in a balanced way to the British electorate. Among others, the editors of The Times and The Daily Telegraph, together with a powerful element on the right wing of the Conservative party, are determined to portray the deadlock on decommissioning as proof that Sinn Féin is cynically insincere about its level of commitment to political action.

This tactic might be described as the picador approach to introducing a terrorist organisation to the attractions of the political arena. No doubt, if sufficient barbs are thrust into its flanks, the animal will eventually, with reluctance, charge. The picadors can then claim the beast was always a ravening monster.

There are lots of guns in Ireland, and in the hands of both communities in the North. The question is not whether an organisation has, or can, obtain weapons. It is whether it will choose violent or political action.

After a 25-year armed campaign, the leadership of Sinn Féin, headed by Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, decided to give politics a chance. It did not do so because of doubts about its ability to continue the campaign or to recruit volunteers to pursue it (the security forces have never doubted it, either).

McGuinness and Adams recognised that the political atmosphere in Ireland and on the British mainland had changed through the development of the European Union, and saw a new way to attract serious attention to their cause. They also realised that the security forces remained capable of containing their efforts and that relatively modest progress towards the development of all-Irish institutions might better serve their cause than the previous all-or-nothing approach.

The decision was taken with trepidation by intelligent, ideologically committed individuals who had spent their adult lives in pursuit of what they regarded as a just war. They did not abandon their armed campaign because they needed a rest or thought it had become irrelevant. On the contrary, it was clear to them that it had put Irish constitutional issues higher up the political agenda than at any time since 1920.

The suggestion of a ceasefire was furiously opposed within the IRA. Many feared that a move to political action would destroy its strength. Nobody was more conscious of this possibility than McGuinness and Adams, who had seen the damage done to the IRA by the 1975 ceasefire and had inherited the leadership of the movement as a result of it. But they decided to take a risk.

I was a witness to their decision. For many years, circumstances have allowed me an occasionally intimate view of political developments within the republican movement. I became aware of the leadership's broadening attitudes, re-examination of the effectiveness and justification of the armed campaign and willingness to enter into dialogue with people who could offer fresh perspectives. I also know how difficult it was to maintain the confidence and discipline of a scattered and partly secret membership during lengthy negotiations with three governments.

The prime minister has said that he accepts the sincerity of the two principal spokesmen. From longer experience, I have no doubt at all of their commitment to finding a political way forwards. I should be surprised if most participants in the Mitchell review did not share this view by now.

The republicans believed that they were making a historic gesture by unilaterally declaring a ceasefire, and thought their good faith would be recognised. But it was not. The Major government's response was an example of picadorism at its most provocative. It questioned the sincerity of the ceasefire and insisted on a tougher declaration. This put the pro-politics element of the Sinn Féin leadership under pressure and revived the threat of violence. When this was finally dealt with, the government found a new excuse to avoid the pursuit of peace: decommissioning.

Impasse. And this is now again the issue. "If you are sincere, hand in your weapons. Otherwise we will renege on the Good Friday agreement," the unionists argue.

"We are sincere, but our people do not feel ready to hand in their weapons until they see some change in circumstances," the Sinn Fein leadership ripostes. "They do not altogether trust you, or even us. They need evidence of your sincerity and, if you are tearing up the agreement, perhaps they are right. Nobody said decommissioning should be a precondition; it was to have been a consequence of the agreement."

There is an explanation for the reluctance of the IRA to commence decommissioning. Weapons and caches are widely dispersed under the control of local cells. Volunteers are not sheep. All joined to pursue an armed campaign for agreed objectives, which have now been modified. Discipline in the face of such changes has been remarkable. Leaders can but lead; confidence in new policies takes time to spread. Members of the republican movement are determined it shall not be destroyed by false promises.

The picadors are having an effect. Most British voters are quite uninformed on the subject. Decommissioning is projected as the central issue in the peace process. It is not. The true issue is politics or violence.

A majority of people in Northern Ireland voted in favour of  the Good Friday agreement. Many in the Ulster Unionist party now seek to withdraw from it and are setting new conditions for their co-operation, while blaming Sinn Fein. Under the Conservatives, this small political party was able to exercise a veto on government action. Any attempt to do so now should be seen for what it is and the political cost should be fully understood by those on the mainland who will be asked to underwrite it. The damage it does to unionism's future prospects is evident.

First published:
Sunday Times, 31.10.1999

German translation
weiterlesen >>

Michael Oatley
is a former MI6 controller for the Middle East and counter-terrorism, and for Europe. He established a secret dialogue with the IRA leadership that led to the 1975 ceasefire and, 16 years later, produced the first moves in the peace process.