The IRA's grand strategy

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The Independent Online
Talking to republicans in Belfast at the weekend, one was struck again by how thoughtful and calculating they can be in plotting and planning their characteristic blend of politics, propaganda and the application of terror.

What happened in England last week was violence, but it was anything but mindless. It will come as little consolation to all those whose enjoyment of a great sporting occasion was marred, and especially to those who spent an uncomfortable Saturday night in Liverpool recreation centres, but their discomfiture was all part of a grand plan.

Listening to the republican explanations and analysis serves as a reminder that these people see themselves as playing a vast game of chess. It is chess on a boobytrapped board, with pieces which may explode at any moment, but in their minds it none the less has rules and a purpose.

Last week's disruption was the equivalent of making a few seemingly inconsequential moves which suddenly develop into a full-blown attack. The railway and motorway disruption originally seemed to be of mainly nuisance value, but they paved the way for the evacuation of Aintree. That new tack has opened up a whole new vista of headaches for the security authorities.

As one republican put it to me: "This is a lower-level military campaign aimed at disruption and sabotage more than the spectacular stuff. It is affecting tens of thousands of people, so it takes on a British national character." The fact that Aintree was in IRA terms a signal success probably means that more of the same will follow.

A senior republican described it as a strategy aimed at maximum disruption and maximum publicity coverage with a minimum of threat to the lives of the civilian population. It is also aimed at the election campaign.

But what do they hope to gain from it all? Republicans explain that in the short term it means that they cannot be ignored in the election, and that it keeps Ireland on the agenda. In the longer term it "reminds the incoming government that the IRA's campaign can be effective and can hurt them economically".

Republicans view yesterday's defiant comments from John Major and Jack Straw with a pinch of salt. The two main British parties may say the disruption will set back Sinn Fein's possible entry into talks, but this tune will change, republicans claim, once the election is out of the way. They predict that the next government, especially if it has a working majority, will move to do business with them. They expect an interregnum, particularly if Labour get in - "new faces in town, they're not going to do anything too speedily".

The political talks are due to resume on 3 June. Republicans do not expect to be there, but they expect that within weeks of the election the new government will privately be putting out feelers towards them. "The British are not stupid people," said one activist. "They must know that republicans want to do business with them."

The goal is to get into negotiations. It is clear enough that a second IRA cessation will be on offer; it is also clear that it will not happen unless the next government gives a guarantee that it will lead automatically to Sinn Fein's entry into multi-party talks.

In other words, all this chaos is aimed at securing Sinn Fein's place at the conference table under the best terms possible. They forecast that the ill-will generated by the wrecking of the Grand National will, post- election, have evolved into a sober realisation that the only way to cope with republicans is to sit down with them.

Republicans remark that, in the wake of major IRA bombings such as last year's attacks at Canary Wharf and Manchester, many British people taking part in television and radio programmes said the Government should talk to them. This is an important factor tucked away in the minds of the men making those deadly little chess moves.

They did not say so at the weekend, but they will have at least two other factors in their minds. One is that last year MI5 and the other security people had one of their best years against republicans in Britain, rounding up one gang which has been described as the IRA's "A-team" and preventing a number of major attacks. Aintree seems to indicate that the IRA has made a successful comeback.

The other is that a campaign which concentrates on sabotaging normal life in England rather than on taking lives has all the appearances of being carefully fashioned to fit in with the election going on in Northern Ireland. Three of Sinn Fein's leadership team - Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and Pat Doherty - are in with a shout of winning three of the 18 Northern Ireland seats.

But all three look like being close contests, and every vote will count. Some of those votes would be lost if the IRA were to set about causing civilian carnage, but Aintree-style activities tend not to cost Sinn Fein votes. They could in fact even help Sinn Fein, since some floating voters who want another ceasefire will draw the message from this type of attack that republicans are intent on positioning themselves for a second cessation rather than on re-starting the whole war again on its previous scale.

If Sinn Fein does win seats, it may well be due as much to highly localised factors as to the overall republican strategy. None the less a win is a win, and even though republicans do not take their Commons seats, the election of two or three new Sinn Fein MPs would be a tremendous boost.

The republican strategy is thus gradually emerging into public view. Sinn Fein will try to win seats so that it can argue it has an increased mandate. The IRA will grab the headlines with attacks in England and Northern Ireland, but try to concentrate on spectacular acts of sabotage and hope to avoid electorally-damaging civilian casualties.

It is a cunning strategy but it has flaws. The 1994 cessation brought a great surge of international goodwill towards Ireland in general and republicans in particular, but much of it has drained away since the resumption of violence. Asking the next government to trust in republican bona fides is asking it to take an enormous risk. Many of those who believed in the 1994 cessation will approach the idea of cessation mark two with great suspicion. It is obvious, now as then, that there are a great many in the republican ranks who would be done with war; but there also many in there who envisage their way ahead as being through a mix of politics and bombs.

The second faction is presently in the ascendancy. The republicans will offer a ceasefire in return for guaranteed access to the conference table, yet this will be asking the new government to take on trust that the saboteurs of today will, overnight, turn into the democrats of tomorrow.

The last cessation perished because of an almost universal lack of goodwill and mutual faith. Aintree may have illustrated that republicans still have the capacity to bring chaos to Britain, but it is also helping to ensure that any post-election negotiations will take place in an atmosphere just as bereft of trust.