Contrite for real?

Print edition : August 03, 2002

In a dramatic action that is viewed with much scepticism, the Irish Republican Army apologises for the civilian casualties it has caused and affirms its commitment to the peace process.

A HISTORIC turn? Or simply another self-serving tactic, and one more deceptive move in one of the Western world's bloodiest sectarian feuds?

These are familiar questions asked in the wake of any new initiative from the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and they have been raised again following its dramatic decision to apologise to the victims of its 30-year-old violent campaign for a united Ireland. The widespread scepticism with which the IRA is regarded is a measure of the gulf that still divides rival protagonists in Northern Ireland, four years after the Good Friday Agreement ushered in a peace process that, for all its apparent feebleness, is widely recognised by both sides as irreversible.

By any yardstick, the IRA's decision, announced on July 16, is a bold acknowledgement of its dubious past, which it clearly wants to put behind it. According to seasoned IRA watchers, it is an unprecedented gesture from an organisation that has consistently refused to repudiate its actions or even express regret. More significantly, it came ahead of the 30th anniversary of the most gruesome episode in its history - the Bloody Friday, when on July 21, 1972, nine people were killed in a series of bomb blasts in Belfast, marking a new phase in republican militancy. Many people were struck by the tone of the IRA's statement which, as one commentator put it, was cast "more in the language of psychotherapy than armed struggle".

"In nine short paragraphs, the IRA used the word 'hurt' three times, 'pain' and 'grief' twice each. And, in a break from past form, it blamed the British government not once," noted Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian.

The announcement came out of the blue and even Prime Minister Tony Blair was reportedly taken by surprise. Ditto his Irish counterpart Bertie Ahern and Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid. All three warmly welcomed it as a step forward towards democratic politics in the strife-torn province where guns and bombs still lurk in the shadows. Both republican and loyalist paramilitary groups continue to be active, and the climate has worsened in recent months, putting new strains on the peace process. John Reid pointed to this, saying that while the apology was welcome, what was needed was to "give people the confidence that there will be no return to the type of activities that caused that pain". He sought a commitment from all sides to use "exclusively peaceful and democratic means" to resolve their differences.

Commentators noted that though the apology was restricted to "non-combatants" - the civilians who died in IRA violence - it was full-throated and made no bones about its guilt. "While it was not our intention to injure or kill non-combatants, the reality is that on this and on a number of other occasions that was the consequence of our actions. It is therefore appropriate on the anniversary of this tragic event that we address all of the deaths and injuries of non-combatants caused by us. We offer our sincere apologies and condolences to their families," the IRA statement said, affirming its "total commitment" to the peace process.

Short of saying that the "war is over", it was the most explicit statement of its desire to draw a line under its past. Yet, over the years the IRA has become so much a victim of its reputation that even when it appears to be putting its best foot forward there is a palpable reluctance to accept it at face value. Therefore much of the political reaction to its apology has been predictable. It has been marked by the same sort of "ifs" and "buts" that characterised the general response to its "historic" decision to start decommissioning last October.

Even those who recognise the huge symbolic significance of its dramatic apology point to its timing to suggest that it has been prompted by a great deal more than a sudden bout of conscience.

The fact that it came a week before the British government was to pronounce on its conduct, following allegations of its involvement in renewed violence and its links with terrorist groups in other countries, is significant, according to its critics.

The move, they said, was simply intended to portray itself in a favourable light and limit the damage it has suffered in recent months as a result of numerous controversies. They recalled that its decision on decommissioning had also been made under similar circumstances after its rich American benefactors, responding to President George W. Bush's war on terrorism, told it bluntly to renounce violence or face isolation. The suggestion, here, is that every time the IRA is in a spot of difficulty it resorts to some dramatic tactic to regain ground.

Unionists dismissed the apology as a tactical move, saying it was intended to fend off pressure on the IRA over allegations that it has been re-arming itself secretly despite its commitment to give up arms. Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) chief and head of the coalition government in Northern Ireland David Trimble, who is under pressure from party hardliners to expel Sinn Fein, the political arm of the IRA, from the coalition government for its failure to rein in the IRA, insisted that Blair should not allow himself to be deflected by the IRA's announcement.

"It is quite significant that this statement says nothing at all about the recent violence that the IRA has been involved in, nothing about what their future conduct is going to be. Consequently, this statement does not absolve the Prime Minister of the need for him to make clear what the government will do in the event of breaches (of the ceasefire agreed under the Good Friday Agreement) by the republican movement," Trimble said.

His hardline colleague and a contender for party leadership Jeffrey Donaldson, was even more scathing. "There are a few people who allow themselves to be deceived by the IRA's words into believing that there is a commitment to the peace process but I judge the IRA as much by their actions as I do by their words," he said in remarks which, observers said, were directed as much at London and Dublin as at Trimble and other moderate unionists.

The deputy leader of the hawkish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Peter Robinson, said the IRA's statement was opportunistic and had nothing to do with "any earnestness on their part to recognise the hurt and anger they have caused". But, ironically, the apology went down better with the victims' families even as they made the point that it did not change things in any real way. "But anything that builds confidence and which is clearly a move forward in the peace process has to be welcomed," said Colin Parry, whose teenaged son died in an IRA bomb blast. Of course, not all were equally generous but generally it was agreed that by apologising the IRA had at least admitted that it had caused pain to others.

Much of the hostile political rhetoric must be seen in the context of next year's assembly elections in Northern Ireland. It is widely assumed that there is growing disillusionment among loyalists and unionists with the peace process, which they believe has been used by republicans to gain legitimacy, and that this would tell on the prospects of moderate unionism in the elections. The DUP is expected to overtake the UUP as the main unionist party - and this is something that people like Jeffrey Donaldson want to pre-empt by pushing a hard line themselves even if it means jettisoning David Trimble and leaving the ruling coalition.

The British government has its task cut out as it struggles to reconcile competing unionist and republican demands in a bid to save the peace process. The pressures on Tony Blair to be seen to be fair to both sides are likely to grow in coming weeks and months - and this would mean walking even a tighter rope than he has done until now. Yet there is a general optimism that the peace process will not collapse if only because both groups have developed stakes in democratic politics (perks of power in Northern Ireland and seats in Westminster), which they would be loath to exchange for the old days of street fighting.

The IRA apology is seen even by its critics as yet another step, however halting or half-hearted it may be, by the republicans to move forward. Even as a gimmick, the apology is an implicit thumbs up for the future and, as one commentator wrote, "not to see it requires a closed heart, to be sure, but also a pair of closed eyes".

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