Northern Ireland: Surrender of guns could be stumbling block to progress

Click to follow
The Independent Online
HIGH ON the wall of a house in Bombay Street, not far from the Falls Road, hangs a plaque dedicated to Gerald McAuley, a 15- year-old member of the IRA's junior wing. He was shot dead by a loyalist intruder in August 1969, when the street was the scene of bitter fighting between Catholics and a Protestant mob. Many houses were burned to the ground.

Young McAuley was hailed as a hero for giving his life but the IRA was bitterly criticised for not carrying out its traditional role of defending Catholic areas against loyalist attack.

Bombay Street was in a real sense the birthplace of the Provisional IRA, which shortly afterwards broke away from the main IRA under the slogan 'From the ashes of Bombay Street rose the Provisionals'. They vowed that vulnerable Catholic areas would never again be left undefended.

It is this singular genesis which makes it extremely unlikely that, whatever pressures are put on it in the months ahead, the IRA will hand over a single gun. While republicans have regularly called for a complete demilitarisation, they will probably argue that they cannot be expected to carry out unilateral disarmament while there are so many other guns still out there.

Northern Ireland's population of 1.5 million holds no fewer than 120,000 legally-held firearms, most of which are in Protestant hands. Violent loyalist groups have many other weapons, which they have used over the years to kill about 700 Catholics. These groups may declare a ceasefire, but there is no sign they are prepared to surrender their guns.

The question, therefore, is whether the peace process can move on while all the weapons are still out there, or whether it will stall on this point. This issue is likely to be the thorniest, but not the only difficulty, of the so-called demilitarisation process.

There have been several reports of beatings in republican areas since the announcement of the IRA ceasefire, and the organisation is being pressed to clarify whether it was responsible. It also has yet to say whether the hundreds of people it has banished from Northern Ireland over the years are now free to return without the threat of violence. Most were forced out for their alleged involvement in drugs, joyriding, crime or other activities defined by the IRA as 'anti-social'.

One genuine fear in republican districts - shared by at least one senior policeman - is that a large- scale reappearance of such people will lead to a crime wave. In particular, Belfast has an unusually small hard-drug problem, partly because the IRA threatened to kill drug-dealers: the concern is that the city might now be at the mercy of the pushers.

This raises the question of whether residents in strong republican districts, many of whom have a strong sense of community and self-help, will begin to think in terms of some form of vigilantism and self-help. For the RUC, coping with a potential crime wave will be an early challenge and an opportunity to show whether it can meet community concerns.

Another major issue concerns the IRA's financial structure, which, according to the RUC, manages to raise millions of pounds each year despite all the efforts of the authorities. No one knows whether the intention is to keep this structure intact, let it wither away, or perhaps to burrow it into the republican community in some modified form.

In all of this the question of IRA prisoners will be crucial. There are 900 in jail in Northern Ireland, and the IRA's attitude is that it is inconceivable to think of violence ending with hundreds of its members spending years behind bars. John Major has already specifically ruled out an amnesty but the question of early release is very much in the air, particularly since the Irish government indicated last week that some IRA members held in the South would not serve their full sentences.

Loyalist paramilitary sources have already signalled that they have no objection to early releases, since the 450 loyalists behind bars would clearly stand to benefit from any such move.

More immediately, much work will be involved in dismantling the formidable security apparatus built up over the last quarter-century. If the IRA ceasefire is followed by similar moves from the tiny INLA (Irish National Liberation Army) and the loyalists, Northern Ireland will suddenly have a surfeit of security force installations and personnel.

Both town and country are studded with heavily-fortified bases and look-out posts: in Belfast three substantial military installations are perched on top of high- rise flats. If the peace becomes permanent most of these will no longer be needed. A large-scale building programme to modernise army and police bases will have to be reviewed; and there will be no further need for the 30,000-plus employed in the security field.

Exactly how many security bases and how many troops and police will be needed is guesswork, but there will be closures and redundancies. Too many job losses, inflicted too quickly, could have sharp effects on the economy and the political situation; too slow a downscaling process will do nothing to improve the acceptability of the RUC in nationalist districts.

Meantime, day-to-day policing has to go on. The handling of demilitarisation will have vital effects on the general atmosphere, and could significantly help or hinder the overall peace process.

(Photograph omitted)