David McKittrick: The dismantling of a military machine

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The Independent Online

The latest report into paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland from the the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) gives a fascinating insight into the intricacies of how the IRA is turning away from terrorism - sometimes against the wishes of some members.

The IMC is regarded as a window into how the pattern of IRA activity is assessed by the police, military and security services in both Britain and Ireland.

With a heavy intelligence input, its reports are treated with caution, but its latest report gives a believable picture of how the IRA, an organisation which claimed almost 1,800 lives over many decades of violence, is transforming itself.

Three years ago it had ceased all attacks on the security forces and cut off involvement in public disorder, but remained involved in criminal activities such as violence and robbery.

But more recently, according to the report, there has been a progressive dismantling of its military structures, an absence of sanctioned acts of violence and efforts to stop criminal activity. In total, this is described as a pattern of "working to ensure full compliance" with a peaceful strategy.

In particular, the organisation has disbanded the sections which were responsible for gathering arms and other material, for engineering (ie, weapons-making) and for training. At the same time it has stood down volunteers and stopped allowances to them.

Such structures as remain are, the report says, those concerned with "preserving the cohesion of the organisation and serving the wider purpose of the republican movement as a whole in a period of major change of strategy and direction." When there have been requests for the IRA to "discipline antisocial behaviour" - that is, to carry out shootings or beatings of those said to be joyriders or thieves - it has refused.

On the streets, senior IRA members have meanwhile played key roles in securing a peaceful marching season, on some occasions "confronting troublemakers from the republican community and being in the front line to stop people from responding to what they saw as provocation."

It has also turned away people who have sought to join the IRA, telling them to join Sinn Fein instead. The IRA's guns have gone: a small number have been retained by activists, but this was despite the instructions of the IRA leadership.

The organisation has also clamped down on the involvement of members in criminality, investigating incidents and expelling some members. A vodka robbery in the Republic had been carried out by IRA members but was for personal gain.

This steady rundown of the IRA has not been greeted with unanimous support in the wider republican community, and in fact has created tension and mistrust.

But the report concluded that it believed the IRA leadership was persisting and would be able to successfully manage various disagreements. Its tenor was that the once fearsome organisation was being carefully and cautiously dismantled.