Republicans can say what they want, I believe the IRA was a terrorist group

This was Gerry Adams, last Tuesday, responding to comments from Arlene Foster about Sinn Fein's 'glorification of terrorism' at their Ard Fheis: 'I also, standing outside the office of the British Prime Minister, want to refute the use of this word '˜terrorism.' Pejorative terms like that, which are about the sons and daughters of families; the husbands and wives of families who happened to serve in the Irish Republican Army and who died in the conflict. I don't use those terms. So let's have a wee bit of sense about this.'

Monday, 27th November 2017, 12:00 pm
Alex Kane
Alex Kane

In December, 2001, former Secretary of State Peter Mandelson, in a Channel 4 documentary about the 9/11 attacks in America, claimed that the IRA’s ceasefire meant that its members should be regarded as freedom fighters to distinguish them from terrorist groups that refuse to enter a political process. “I think the distinction we have to make is not between good and bad terrorists. It is between those terrorists who have political objectives and are prepared to negotiate those objectives at the end of the day and engage in some sort of dialogue and ultimately some sort of political or peace process. I don’t call them terrorists when they reach that stage. They are registers. They are freedom fighters.”

When asked about Gerry Adams, and whether he would describe him as a “freedom fighter”, Mandeleson responded: “I don’t want to label Gerry Adams. But he is tied to the IRA, a terrorist organisation or a paramilitary organisation which is engaged in a ceasefire, which is committed to a peace process, whose political representatives take part in part in political institutions, and that’s the difference.”

In other words, Mandelson’s position, one which seems to be shared by other national and international observers, is that while the IRA remained armed and active it was a terrorist organisation; but once it committed fully to negotiations and agreed institutions, then it made the leap to “freedom fighter”. At the Ard Fheis in 1981, Danny Morrison said; “Who here really believes that we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot box in one hand and an Armalite in this hand, we take power in Ireland?” That seemed to be an acknowledgement that violence, terror, war, physical force, was still required, because non-violence wasn’t going to deliver the ultimate goal for Sinn Fein. So, at that point, would Adams concede that the IRA chose to deploy terror?

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In an interview with Aaron Edwards in 2010 (for his book, UVF: Behind the Mask), Morrison, responding to a question about the IRA’s 1994 ceasefire, said; “What was the other alternative? The other alternative was to cash in the chips of the armed struggle to produce an interim political agreement that would allow you to argue for and set in train a process...The thing is that the IRA did not drive the British Army into the sea, nor was it its intention to do that either. It was to break the will of the British Government, force the British Government to consider talking to republicans and force the British Government to concede to republicans. And that went as far as it could go.”

Would Mandelson argue that it was at that point, when the IRA strategy had gone as “far as it could go”, that the IRA became freedom fighters? Or would he say July 1997, when the IRA, having broken the 1994 ceasefire, declared another “complete cessation of military operations”?

My view is that the real freedom fighters in Northern Ireland were the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and the SDLP. John Hume did more to change Northern Ireland than anything the IRA did. That whole raft of 1970s/80s legislation on housing allocation, equal opportunity, voting rights, identity protection and recognition etc was fuelled by the arguments and influence of people like Hume. And it was achieved without him throwing a brick, firing a shot or planting a bomb or facilitating terrorism in any form.

I don’t think that Hume and others, particularly Seamus Mallon, ever fully understood the unionist psyche. That’s why they got it so wrong in 1973/4 and pushed Brian Faulkner too far, too quickly. But, that aside, I think the SDLP was serious about its willingness to work with unionism; which is why I supported power-sharing over 40 years ago. Yes, I was well aware that Hume’s ultimate goal was a united Ireland, an ‘agreed Ireland,’ as he preferred to describe it, but he realised that forcing that outcome would be counter-productive. It remains a matter of regret for me that unionism didn’t play a cannier hand when it had the chance.

However much they may now try to rewrite their history, and there were very clear shifts in strategy, tactics and policy between 1970 and 1997, it’s impossible for me to believe that the IRA ever gave a damn about unionists. It’s also impossible for me to believe that the IRA wasn’t a terrorist group. And impossible for me to believe that Adams wasn’t a spokesman for terror.

I accept that many republicans will counter my argument with their personal reflections on what they regarded as the ‘exclusivity,’ ‘triumphalism’ and ‘militarism’ of the ‘unionist state.’ These contrasting and contradictory narratives are the reality of where we stand today. Not a happy conclusion, I know; but nor is it, I think, a wrong or misleading conclusion.