Sean Walsh believes the legacy of the troubles is being weaponised to undermine a “no deal” Brexit. Even if a “no deal” break with the EU does stir sectarian violence, it may still be the right thing to do. The morality of a decision is not exhausted by its consequences.
Having lived in Northern Ireland I can confirm that there are few more depressing sights than an Irish Republican funeral. It isn’t the paramilitary trappings. Or the coffin. It’s the dress sense of the mourners.. Now I am not known in my everyday social transactions as somebody who makes a sartorially favourable impression (I am a huge Columbo fan). But were I to be given the honour of being pallbearer at the funeral of a ”military hero” I’d probably give the jeans and football T-shirt a miss. At least until the wake. Have you watched any of these things?. It is almost a relief when the crowd parts to make way for the traditional IRA volley of shots over the coffin. At least the firing party is invariably well turned out, balaclavas and camouflage jackets freshly ironed, shoes diligently polished.
All of which could serve as a useful metaphor for the nature of the Provisional IRA itself, which has a veneer of executive smartness underwritten by an occasionally comical shop floor sloppiness. Those who like to catastrophize the problems of the Irish “backstop” might do well to take this on board. The IRA has maintained something close enough to a ceasefire and credit where it’s due: a ceasefire is itself a military operation. But it has nevertheless a structural untidiness which argues against a return to violence, even were it minded to do so. Which it isn’t.
The Provisional IRA will not return to war for the simple reason that it sued for peace, and has no reason to regret the decision. The fact that John Major decided to capitulate to an organisation that was effectively surrendering speaks only to the terminal incompetence of his eminence grise administration. Major was like the guy who offers a huge redundancy package to an employee who walked into the office intending to quit anyway.
Irish Republicanism reverted to an exclusively political strategy because it was incapable of sustaining a military one. You cannot fight a war when your military structures -up to the level of General- have been compromised by the enemy. By the 1990s even PIRA’s internal security unit (known, charmingly as the “nutting squad”) was informing on itself. That was the sloppiness. To put it uncharitably, the IRA ended up working for the British government.
Behind the sharp suited façade, the organisation had become irretrievably shop-soiled.
And then, of course, there is the problem of loss of momentum.
Armed Republicanism was engaged in a danse macabre with the British military for decades. And that’s the right way to put it: the IRA was successful because it was dynamic. Its ingenuity in the development of mechanisms of murder was a function of its constant engagement with an equally ingenious enemy. There was a horrible symbiosis about the whole tragedy. “I see your remotely activated detonation technology and raise you an electronic jamming system”.
But when PIRA stepped off the dancefloor the UK military continued to waltz. The Ulster experience formed a blueprint for how to fight an insurgent guerrilla war. Were the Provisional IRA to take up arms again it would find itself decidedly flat-footed.
Guerrilla wars are conducted according to the geography of the theatre of battle. If there was an exception to the PIRA “informer problem” it can be found in the unfathomably complicated theatre of the border country. Precisely the place where, we are led to believe, the catalyst for a renewed conflict is likely to occur. But who would fight it?
The “dissident Republicans” who pose a threat do so in the urban parts of the six counties of Ulster. They have no “bandit country” organisation worth speaking of. Nor would they be capable of constructing one, partly because they are useless, but also because they are not welcome They would be interlopers. The border areas are still PIRA country, and the Republican bonds that exist there owe as much to family ties as to ideology. The reason they were not compromised is the same reason that dissidents will not form a presence there.
The Republican structures in Fermanagh, Tyrone and South Armagh remain overwhelmingly influential on the (still nominally extant) PIRA Army Council. Were the dissidents to march in and attempt a take over it would not end well for them. It would be like Whitey Bulger’s Boston Irish Mob trying to take on Michael Corleone. Republicans in this part of Ireland do not want a return to conflict because, due to embedded and impressively organised smuggling operations they do very well from the status quo. If a “no deal” Brexit leads to further excise and tariff discrepancies between the North and the Republic then they are quite OK with that. It’s good for business. Republicanism in the border areas has, over the last decade or two, taken a financial shape.
The amplification of the “backstop” issue is a disgrace. If the above analysis is correct then defenders of Mrs May’s Treaty are saying that we must, if we are to prevent a return to armed Republicanism in Derry and Belfast, require that Northern Ireland remain within the regulatory (and therefore legal) jurisdiction of the EU. Inevitably that would involve a non-consensual change in the constitutional relationship between Britain and the North and, as a matter of logic, that would be a violation of the Belfast Agreement.
And even if the analysis is wrong there is no reason to acquiesce in the “backstop” chapter of the Project Fear Handbook. Politicians are required to be mindful of their decisions. It does not follow that the morality of the decision is exhausted by its consequences. Even if a “no deal” break with the EU ends up poking the PIRA wasp nest, it may still be the right thing to do. The legacy of the Troubles is being weaponised, but it is more than likely that the gun contains blanks. And even if it doesn’t, has any good ever come from genuflecting in the face of blackmail?