31.8.04

Reuters

IRA CASTS SHADOW 10 YEARS AFTER CEASEFIRE

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Tue 31 August, 2004 05:48
By Alex Richardson

BELFAST (Reuters) - For many of the men and women who had spent years at the sharp end of the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) violent campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland, August 31, 1994 was an emotional day.

Former IRA prisoner Jim Gibney, now a senior backroom figure with the group's political ally Sinn Fein, was travelling back to Belfast from a meeting in Dublin when news broke that the Catholic guerrillas had declared a ceasefire from midnight.

"It triggered off in me a tidal wave of emotion ... my mind was totally preoccupied by those people who I grew up with who were in the IRA and died on active service," he said.

"It was a big, big, emotional time, and the overwhelming emotion for me was a sense of emptiness."

Danny Morrison, the former Sinn Fein publicity director who famously summed up IRA strategy in the 1980s as "an Armalite in one hand and a ballot box in the other", was in jail for his part of in the false imprisonment of an IRA informer.

"The morning it was called we heard a newsflash on the radio and I just went back to my cell and cried, partly through a sense of sadness and partly a sense of relief," he said.

With its "war" mired in grim stalemate, secret talks between Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and moderate Roman Catholic John Hume had persuaded IRA leaders that a negotiated settlement could be reached.

"The IRA was attempting to cash in the chips of the armed struggle, and do justice, if it was possible, to all the sacrifices and all the suffering," said Morrison, now a writer.

Pro-British "loyalists" called a ceasefire six weeks later.

But political progress was slow, with London and Protestant unionists, who want to retain ties to Britain, wary of the IRA's intentions after 25 years of bombings and assassinations.

Early in 1996 the IRA ceasefire ended abruptly when a huge lorry bomb tore through a business district in east London, killing two shopkeepers.

The following year it was reinstated, and within months negotiations had started which resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which set up a power-sharing government.

Self-rule has since stalled. Britain reimposed direct rule from London in October 2002 after allegations of IRA spying. Unionists say they will not share power with Sinn Fein until the IRA disbands and surrenders all its illegal weapons.

VIOLENCE UNLEASHED

The modern IRA was spawned in the turbulent summer of 1969 when centuries-old sectarian tensions erupted in violence.

Tommy Gorman, a Catholic from a working-class district of west Belfast, said he joined after witnessing police siding with a Protestant mob petrol-bombing Catholic homes.

"It wasn't an easy decision for me, I was married and I had a brother in the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary, the police) and another brother in the British Army," said Gorman, now 59.

"But on that August night in 1969 came the realisation for me that the place was irreformable, so you had to deconstruct it. At that time the IRA was the only vehicle available."

He became an "engineer", making bombs for the deadly campaign the resurgent IRA was unleashing on the streets.

For the next 25 years conflict raged as the IRA fought a bitter war of attrition against police and British troops, while Protestant "loyalist" paramilitaries hit back with often random attacks on Catholics.

Gorman became a hero to IRA sympathisers after he and six others escaped from a British prison ship moored in Belfast Lough in 1972. But he became disillusioned with the group and is no longer involved.

A supporter of the ceasefire, he believes the IRA has abandoned the left-wing ideology it espoused when he joined.

"I did what I did full of idealism, I thought I was doing the right thing, (but) as it's come now, it's not worth a drop of anyone's blood, one second in prison, what's been attained, the changes are not commensurate with the struggle," he said.

"The people, maybe, that I was responsible for killing and causing suffering, at least when I did it, I know it sounds paradoxical, but I did it in good faith, I thought I was involved in a revolution to bring about an egalitarian society."

IRA HOLDING KEY TO TALKS?

In mid-September Northern Ireland's political leaders will meet at a castle in southern England for talks billed by London and Dublin as a last chance for reviving the Good Friday accord. The IRA could hold the key.

Unionists will demand proof that the IRA, which says it has secretly destroyed some of its weapons, is going to finish disarming and stand down as an active paramilitary organisation.

Sinn Fein has its own list of demands, which include further police reform, a scaling back of Britain's military presence, and an effective amnesty for IRA fugitives.

In recent weeks Adams has told republicans they must be ready for the IRA to disappear -- if they get what they want.

Is the IRA ready to leave the stage?

"The only way that can be answered is in the context of the other armed groups that are still there, the British Army, the PSNI (police), the loyalist paramilitaries," said Gibney, a close ally of Adams.

"I thought we'd be further on than we are today in terms of the armed groups, but we're clearly not -- and I don't see any real prospect of being much further on in the autumn."


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