"IRA calls cease-fire," proclaims the Page 1 headline. Alongside, an upbeat photo of two happy West Belfast girls, waving Irish flags and cheering the good news. A sidebar reproduces the statement of the Provisional Irish Republican Army: "As of midnight," says the key paragraph, "there will be a complete cessation of military operations."
Belfast Unionists and British officials, meanwhile, caution that a "complete" cease-fire is not the same as a "permanent" cease-fire and worry that the IRA's promise to stop the killing represents only a tactic, not a true change.
The last time the IRA agreed to a "complete cessation of military operations," it lasted barely 17 months.
The news from Northern Ireland earlier this week? Actually, no. What you just read is a summary of the news from Northern Ireland on Aug. 31, 1994 — the day of the IRA's last cease-fire, nearly three years ago. That "complete cessation of military operations" lasted only 17 months. It ended at 7:01 p.m. on Feb. 9, 1996, when a 1,000-pound bomb ripped through London's Canary Wharf, injuring 43 people and killing two.
Now, after a year and a half of fresh violence, terror, and death, comes another IRA cease-fire and another stab at the "peace process."
Is anything different this time around? It is true that there are new prime ministers in London and Dublin, and that with a big Labor majority in Westminster, Unionist members of Parliament have lost their leverage. But otherwise it could still be 1994.As before, the IRA will not call its cease-fire "permanent." As before, it refuses to disgorge its massive cache of weapons ("not . . . a single bullet," said Sinn Fein's No. 2, Martin McGuinness). As before, the Provos demand concessions as their price for joining all-party talks but offer none in return. 1997 looks a lot like 1994. Nothing really seems to have changed. Because nothing really has.
At their core, the "troubles" in Northern Ireland are the work of a small band of violent fanatics who intend to have their way no matter how many victims they have to blow up to get it.
Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA (they are essentially the same) did not come into being to find a compromise on the future of Ireland. They exist to reject compromise. Their purpose is to force Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and into the Irish Republic, on a wave of blood if necessary. Until all of Ireland is ruled from Dublin, there can be no peace: So said IRA/Sinn Fein 25 years ago; so it says today.
The fact that most of Northern Ireland's population wishes to remain in the United Kingdom is irrelevant to Sinn Fein — unlike every other party, it rejects the principle of popular self-determination. Nor does Sinn Fein care that the British government has explicitly disclaimed any "selfish, strategic, or economic interest in Northern Ireland," and would unload the province tomorrow if it could figure out a way to do so without triggering a civil war.
It matters little to Sinn Fein that the vast majority of Ireland's Catholics have no interest in coercing Protestant Ulster into a united Ireland.
The great body of Irish people (Irish-Americans included) regards the IRA's tactics — blowing up hotels, shooting policemen in the back, murdering children — as unconscionable. But the Provos care nothing for the views of the Irish people. They will kill for Mother Ireland whether the Irish want them to or not.
Ulster's sectarian divisions, brutally implanted more than three centuries ago and reinforced by generations of British and Protestant misrule, are permanently entrenched. There will always be Protestant-Catholic tension in Northern Ireland, just as there will always be black-white tension in the United States, Hindu-Muslim tension in India, and Flemish-Walloon tension in Belgium. But tension and peace are not incompatible.
Northern Ireland is not at war. Most of its people live relatively stable, tranquil lives. Anti-Catholic discrimination, pervasive 20 years ago, has sharply abated. Partisan passions are mostly channeled into nonviolent political parties. Ulster's two communities have their problems, but they are not at each other's throats. Frankly, if it weren't for the IRA and the equally barbaric Unionist terror groups it has provoked into reaction, Northern Ireland would never be in the news. The paramilitaries are a vicious tail wagging a fairly placid dog.
If the IRA breaks this cease-fire, The New York Times editorialized the other day, "it will have to face the anger of all in Ulster, Catholic and Protestant, who desperately want these peace talks to succeed." But of course the IRA will break this cease-fire. It must. Its influence (and Sinn Fein's) is entirely dependent on its violent reputation. Take away its power to kill, and what does it have left?
Without their Semtex and their Armalites, the Provos are nothing. They are crusaders for no great moral cause. They are the champions of no downtrodden masses. They are the warriors of no silent majority. They are a tiny group of zealots with a modest following of passive supporters; their influence, far out of proportion to their numbers, flows from the barrel of a gun. To them, peace is no dream, it is a nightmare.
For on the day Northern Ireland lays its quarrels to rest, Sinn Fein and the IRA are doomed.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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