An uneasy peace while the guns rust

As government ministers edge closer to talks with Sinn Fein, Irish republicans and loyalists seem as reluctant as ever to lay down arms. David McKittrick explains how the conflict has left communities distrustful and watchful of their defences
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When Gardai last week seized a van-load of Irish National Liberation Army guns bound for the North, their action had a double effect. It struck a blow at the tiny but fierce terrorist group, but it also underlined the immense difficulties surrounding the issue of paramilitary disarmament.

The INLA was clearly intent not on decommissioning the weapons - rifles, 20 pistols and several thousand rounds of ammunition - but on commissioning them. Loyalist groups, when they heard the news, argued that they could hardly be expected to hand in their weapons while some republicans were apparently tooling up for war.

Disarmament can realistically be expected only when such suspicions have been allayed and trust has been built up. Given the fact that such conditions do not at present exist, the Government must be aware that when ministers do eventually sit down with Sinn Fein, the chances of the IRA handing over any weaponry in the next few years are remote.

The casual British observer may assume that, since the IRA campaign is over, the organisation will now as a matter of course be planning to divest itself of its now-redundant hardware, and that a refusal to hand in the guns means that a resumption of the violence is a live option.

Things look different in Ireland. Here, historical baggage affects everyday life and political decisions. There is no precedent for insurgents handing in their guns at the end of a campaign, and the clear message of the past, and of present-day realities, is that guns are not going to be surrendered.

That is the bad news. The good news is that security sources are growing steadily more confident that the IRA campaign is over for good, and that while there is no intention of handing in the guns, there is no intention of using them again. While this is in theory a fairly precarious position, the popular view is that the peace process can continue on this basis.

Many of the major political players, and some senior security people, are not just resigned to this but are also curiously relaxed about it. History offers lots of examples of gunmen going political and simply letting their guns rust away: it is the standard Irish way of making the transition from violence to politics.

But an even more powerful factor is the mindset of large numbers of nationalists. Many working-class Catholics, particularly in Belfast, have what might be described as a pogrom complex. This is unfortunate but it is not irrational, for there is a strong folk-memory of events in Bombay Street in 1969. This little back street, which sits between the Shankill and the Falls and is overlooked by a large monastery, turned into a flashpoint which then became one of the lasting symbols of the troubles.

In August 1969, when disturbances first degenerated into killings, Protestant mobs from the Shankill invaded the district, destroying almost 50 of the little terraced houses with petrol bombs. Both sides had some guns and there was much shooting. Dozens of people were injured. A 15-year- old republican youth, Gerard McAuley, was shot dead.

A priest, Father McLaughlin, later told a tribunal headed by Lord Scarman what it was like: "I was terribly agitated and worked up and terribly afraid there was going to be a holocaust and that the whole area was going to be wiped out. I was absolutely convinced that this was an attempt not merely to wipe out the monastery but the whole area. I was really in desperation for help."

The priest testified that he came across two armed men, "both known to him as reliable", in a lower corridor of the monastery. They told him they would defend the building and, "because of the fear of an attack, the rumour about a sniper and the absence of police", he allowed them to stay.

He instructed them "to use their weapons as a last resort if the monastery was being attacked, and then only to fire in the air".

Bombay Street remains the great symbol of Catholic families at the mercy of marauding loyalists, but similar scenes were enacted elsewhere in 1969. In all, 1,500 Catholic families were displaced, compared with 315 Protestant families. More than 5 per cent of Catholic families in Belfast had to move house.

Today, Bombay Street has a wall plaque in memory of young McAuley, who is remembered as a hero who died in the defence of his community. But the IRA leadership of the time was disgraced: starry-eyed Marxists, they were trying to build bridges to the Protestant working-class. They had few guns and were condemned for their failure to protect Catholic areas against what was termed a pogrom.

This leadership was swiftly deposed and the Provisional IRA was born, vowing that Catholic districts would never again be left without defences. The Provisionals soon went on the attack, and their aggressive terrorist campaign has tended to obscure their origins. But in the republican ghettos it is clearly understood that the IRA's tribal duty is to prevent a recurrence of 1969.

Why this should be so is a matter of some mystery to outsiders. The IRA was manifestly unable to prevent loyalists killing more than 900 people, most of them uninvolved Catholics, during the troubles. Many IRA actions brought lethal loyalist retaliation, yet the ghetto mentality has been not to blame the IRA but to cling yet more tightly to it.

Bombay Street today has several distinguishing features. It is a mixture of old and new housing, for the burnt-out homes were rebuilt. And it has a towering concrete and metal wall separating it from the Protestant Shankill - a wall which, though huge, offers the locals incomplete security.

Over the years bricks, bottles and other missiles have still occasionally come across from the other side. In 1988, loyalist gunmen drove round it one morning at 4.15, burst into a house and shot dead Gerard Slane in front of his wife. His last words were, "Teresa, it's the Orangemen."

Several years later, Teresa Slane had the experience of looking over the wall to see a large loyalist bonfire in the Shankill topped with a sign which said: "Hello, goodbye, goodnight Gerard - UVF". She said then: "I am really bitter about it. You couldn't like these people if you tried."

The desire that the IRA should not to be disarmed and defenceless is not confined to the organisation's members, but is to be found in some surprising parts of the Catholic community. An elderly Catholic priest recently surprised a group of parishioners by saying quietly that he thought the IRA should hang on to its guns.

He did not, he explained, want the IRA to start up again. He just wanted some "defensive capability" to deter loyalist attacks on Catholic areas, an insurance policy against more Bombay Streets. The same feelings exist in mirror image on the loyalist side, where many want to hold on to their weapons while the IRA and INLA are still out there.

This mentality is probably the strongest of the factors which mitigate against an arms handover, but there are others. The IRA, when it stopped its terrorism last August, did not surrender: it simply decided to switch from violence to pursue its aims by other means.

A handover of guns to the authorities would be a sign of capitulation. It would also convey an acceptance of the British presence as the legitimate authority, and denote that the IRA no longer had the right to hold arms. Such heresies against republican ideology could provoke a revolt in the IRA ranks.

It is also the case that while the concentration is on republican weaponry, the guns of the IRA are just one element of an extraordinarily heavily armed and militarised society. It contains tens of thousands of guns and tens of thousands of people trained in their use.

Republicans make the point that nearly all the locals involved in security work are Protestants, and that the majority of legal weapons are in Protestant hands. From their perspective the disarmament of the IRA, on a unilateral basis, would leave republicans as the only unarmed element in a land bristling with guns.

The reason for holding on to the guns is the same reason why there is a wall in Bombay Street: that the two sides have in the past been unable to live together. The ceasefires have created the possibility of a new political settlement.

But it will be a long and difficult process. The communities need to devise new institutions which will allow peaceful co-existence, and to develop the trust necessary to make them work. The walls will not come down, and the guns will not be handed in, until that is in sight.

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