In the final week of July 2005, a month darkened by terrorist violence in London, the Irish Republican Army officially declared an end to its armed campaign to eliminate British rule in Northern Ireland. The time had come, the I.R.A. statement said, to pursue a political and democratic path to a unified Irish republic. Addressing the most neuralgic issue in the peace processthe disarmament of the I.R.A.the statement ordered all units to dump arms and invited outside groups to verify the process by which I.R.A. weapons, thought to be hidden in stockpiles throughout Northern Ireland, would be destroyed. The British prime minister called the statement a step of unparalleled magnitude in the recent history of Northern Ireland, while Unionist leader Ian Paisley expressed predictable skepticism.
As a matter of fact, the I.R.A. had declared a cease-fire in 1994, which led to the agreement on Good Friday 1998 on a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. That experiment in power sharing was suspended in 2002, largely because of Unionist demands that the I.R.A. disarm in a process that could be verified without conditions or compromises. While the cease-fire in the military campaign continued to be observed, some I.R.A. units engaged in criminal activities that embarrassed the leaders of Sinn Fein, the political party most closely associated with the I.R.A., and alienated Catholics as well as Protestants in Northern Ireland and the Republic. Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, urged the I.R.A. leaders to renounce the use of military force. This latest statement, the clearest and most unqualified renunciation of violence ever issued by the I.R.A., is a response to the Sinn Fein leadership.
Unionist leaders were not the only voices to express skepticism about the I.R.A. statement. Ordinary citizens of Northern Ireland, Catholic as well as Protestant, have long been the victims of the violence of the I.R.A. and the Protestant paramilitary groups that have claimed more than 3,500 lives over 36 years of violence, and their hopes for peace have been betrayed in the past. There is reason to believe, however, that events have made continued military activity by the I.R.A. a wasteful adventure. Since the cease-fire of 1994 and the Good Friday agreement, Northern Ireland has seen a growth in economic prosperity that brought benefits to all its citizens. On the political front the growing strength of Sinn Fein as the dominant party representing Republican and Catholic interests created greater confidence that those interests could be effectively pursued through democratic and political channels. In these circumstances, the renunciation of military force by the I.R.A. can be seen as a change in strategy, dictated by historical developments, and not a surrender of the ultimate goal.
Still, all agree that the peace process will take time, and it will be many months before the power-sharing government envisioned in the Good Friday agreement can be restored. During that time, the I.R.A. and the leaders of Sinn Fein will seek to identify and denounce dissident groups within the Republican movement who cling to the deadly romanticism of violence, even when it is only a cloak for common criminal activities. But time and history are on the side of those who seek to resolve the deep sectarian divisions in Northern Ireland through the political process rather than continue the deadly cycle of violence that has trapped generations of Catholics and Protestants.
In the history of nationalist movements, yesterday’s terrorists have often become today’s freedom fighters, as the histories of Israel, Palestine and South Africa demonstrate. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, however, called attention to the profound difference between the past violence of the I.R.A. and the current threat of jihadist terror in London and other European centers. While the political goals of Republicanism could be shared by law-abiding people, the demands of Islamic terrorists can never be a matter for negotiation.
The suicide bombers of Sept. 11, 2001, those who fuel the insurgency in Iraq and those who now threaten the safety of ordinary citizens, of all faiths and nationalities, in European capitals have no defined political goal other than the destruction of the institutions of Western democracy. They must be identified and resisted if this is to be a season of peace, not only for Northern Ireland but for the community of nations that must confront a common enemy.
The peace process in Northern Ireland, which now embarks on a new stage in its journey, suggests that other conflicts, rooted in ancient memories and legacies of violence, may also, in time, find reason to build the future rather than destroy the present.