How long before the bullets fly?

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THE 'halt to hostilities' announced yesterday by the loyalist paramilitaries deserves to be welcomed to exactly the same extent as the ceasefire announced by the IRA on 31 August. Both afford relief to the people of Northern Ireland, for a period of unknown duration. In both cases, the welcome has to be guarded, and there is no reason for any relaxation of security vigilance, or for rewarding either sets of murder-gangs with political concessions.

Both sets of private armies remain in being, in possession of formidable arsenals, and committed to incompatible political objectives. Neither has conceded anything more than a temporary and conditional ceasefire.

In fact there is nothing that can properly be called a 'cessation of violence' - even a temporary one. Both sets of paramilitaries have for years maintained regimes of mainly sub-lethal terror over the communities within which they are based. The IRA not only continued this form of terrorism after its ceasefire, but intensified it. Punishment has been inflicted through severe beatings with hurley sticks and baseball bats, or breaking people's arms and legs with iron bars.

These routine forms of terror attract little notice outside the province. Even inside Northern Ireland, they seem to be regarded as normal by the authorities. Families Against Intimidation and Terror, the brave Belfast-based organisation that monitors these activities, has shown that there were more IRA punishment-beatings during September than in the eight months of this year up to the ceasefire.

In IRA terms, this increase is logical. Within the communities that it dominates - as distinct from the world at which it aims its propaganda - the message the IRA wants to convey is that it has not gone away, and has no intention of going away. This message is best conveyed during the 'cessation of military operations' by the use of hurley-sticks, baseball bats and iron bars. And petrol bombs.

The loyalist paramilitaries have been enforcing a similar reign of terror in Protestant areas. Up to now their 'punishment squads' have been using firearms, as the IRA squads used to. The loyalist paramilitaries tend to imitate the tactics of the IRA so they toomay discontinue the use of firearms for 'punishments'. The punishments themselves are unlikely to be discontinued, on either side.

The IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries have tactical similarities, but their objectives are radically different. The IRA remains a revolutionary organisation: loyalists are counter-revolutionary. The IRA's avowed objective remains the break-up of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: the objective of loyalist paramilitaries is to avert the attainment of the IRA's objective.

Were the IRA to go out of business, the loyalist paramilitaries would also do so. Nationalists have suggested that this is not so. One of the dogmas of the pan-nationalist consensus (consisting of Fianna Fail, Irish Labour, the SDLP, Sinn Fein and Cardinal Daly) is that loyalist violence is 'always proactive, never reactive'. This dogma runs counter to common sense.

Nationalist ideology prefers to think of loyalist killings as having no political content, being exclusively sectarian in motivation, so that they can be seen as totally separate from the IRA's campaign and never as responsive to it. In reality, both sets of murders are both sectarian and political in origin, and are responsive to one another.

Unfortunately, the IRA is not about to go out of business, though Mr Major appears to be vaguely under the impression that it is. He seems to regard the IRA as more or less analogous - in respect of political violence - to a bunch of reformed drunks, now recuperating under the care of Alcoholics Anonymous; it may soon be sufficiently recovered from its old bad habits to be able to talk with him about how to surrender its weaponry, including three tons of Semtex, to the RUC.

The IRA is not a bit like that. It will not discuss handing over even a part of its estimated 100 tons of weaponry as long as British troops remain in Northern Ireland. In fact, the IRA has no intention of disarming at all since its weapons will still be needed to fight Protestants after the British withdraw (assuming this happens). The loyalist paramilitaries are, of course, acutely aware of this, and have no intention of disarming either. What we have at the moment therefore is a truce and no more.

The Sinn Fein leadership does not seriously pretend otherwise. Gerry Adams, in America, said the armed struggle might resume in two or three years. Martin McGuinness, vice-president of Sinn Fein, said, about the same time, that 'the IRA would laugh me out of the room' if he were to propose that they should hand over their arms. Last week, Mitchell McLaughlin, the northern chairman of Sinn Fein, stated the position of Sinn Fein-IRA with great precision, though in the coded political jargon of his movement. He said: 'If the current political condition persisted, and there was no democratic, political alternative, the Irish people would have the right to continue the conflict. The crucial question at the moment was whether the British would disengage from Northern Ireland.'

The IRA will not proceed directly from the present cessation of military operations to a straightforward resumption. There will be a grey interim period, to be filled by the development of what Danny Morrison calls 'the unarmed strategy': that is, a determined attempt to destabilise Northern Ireland through a series of street protests and civil disobedience activities, conducted at a level of violence approximating to that of the punishment squads. This will lead, in Belfast, to clashes between Catholic and Protestant mobs, and these in turn to the breakdown of both the ceasefires. The IRA will put the blame for its own resumption on Britain's failure to play its part in the peace process by disengaging from Northern Ireland.

The two ceasefires now in force rest on opposing and incompatible assumptions. The loyalist ceasefire is based on the assumption that 'the Union is safe'. The IRA ceasefire is based on the assumption that the same Union is about to be dissolved. Any political move that strengthens the loyalist ceasefire endangers the IRA ceasefire, and vice versa. The maintenance of the double ceasefire, over a prolonged period, therefore seems unlikely.