Behind the Mask: The IRA and Sinn Fein
Before the Dawn: An Autobiography
The transformation of terrorist into statesman has been in the last fifty years such a frequently recurring theme that it has almost become the political equivalent of religious redemption. In their different ways, Jomo Kenyatta, Yitzhak Shamir, Nelson Mandela, and many others have made the transition from outlaw to politician, from reviled insurgent to respected leader. Time and again, the alchemy of power has conferred retrospective sanction on what was once seen as mindless brutality.
If the current peace talks in Northern Ireland are to succeed, new conversions will have to be added to the list. For the sake of peace and political stability, those who have committed or sanctioned almost thirty years of terrorist violence, involving over 3,200 deaths, will have to be accepted as legitimate democrats. Some of them are the political representatives of Loyalist paramilitary groups who, in the name of their right to remain part of the United Kingdom, have inflicted terrible and often random violence on the Catholic community. Those groups, the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force, have, for the most part, observed the cease-fire since October 1994, when they expressed “abject and true remorse” for their “innocent victims.” Since no conceivable settlement will break the link with Britain that they are pledged to defend, they are unlikely to form a barrier to peace. Much more critical, and much more difficult, is the journey that the Irish Republican Army and its political wing, Sinn Fein, will have to make.
That journey is treacherous because, though Irish republicans would like to think otherwise, the analogy between themselves and Kenyatta or Mandela is not in fact valid. The IRA’s campaign has not been a war of national liberation, waged on behalf of the majority against an oppressive minority or a foreign power. Its enemies have not been illegitimate regimes but two liberal democracies—the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland—and the majority Protestant population in Northern Ireland itself. The end-of-empire ritual of an old flag lowered at midnight and a new one raised at dawn will not be played out in Belfast, whatever the outcome of the talks. Sinn Fein’s leader, Gerry Adams, may have made the transition from terrorist to politician, but he and his comrades are not about to take over the state. The question on which the future of Northern Ireland depends is whether, without the reward of power, an undefeated paramilitary army can be persuaded to trade the epic certainties of violence for the unglamorous ambiguities of peaceful politics. One of the most resilient and fearsome of terrorist groups, which has withstood all the efforts of the British army and the local Northern Irish security apparatus to destroy it, is being asked to settle for something far short of its goals. And for this incorporation into a liberal democracy of an armed conspiracy to overthrow it, postwar history offers no precedent.
To understand why there is, nevertheless, a reasonable chance that this transition may in …
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‘The End of the Troubles?’: An Exchange April 9, 1998