They Thought It Was All Over

Red Action No. 73: Spring 1996.
On February 8, the Financial Times carried the headline "Security Sources Believe Ulster Cease-fire is Safe", describing the MI5 assessment that the IRA leadership was committed to the cease-fire. The next day the IRA announced that their patience and their cease-fire had come to an end. An article in the Guardian by Irish correspondent David Sharrock stumbled on the one of the two principle factors which made this outcome inevitable. "There is a private view expressed by some Unionists that there is nothing to be gained from reaching a comprehensive settlement...since the outcome will inevitably involve constitutional concessions ...far better to play the long ball game giving as little as possible. With any luck the IRA cease-fire will be called off, which will only go to show the Unionists were right all along not to sit down with its political wing Sinn Fein. Or better still the IRA fragments, leading to a bloody internal feud and a security crackdown which ends in military defeat". Though denied this wishful thinking, Unionist preoccupation that it was indeed `a hard-line breakaway faction' dominated studio discussions immediately following the explosion almost as much as the political impact of the bomb itself. This was underlined by Trevor McDonald on News at Ten actually announcing that a breakaway faction `Sons of Ireland' had been responsible! The crocodile tears and told you so smugness with which unionist representatives greeted the Canary Wharf bombing confirms the authenticity of the Sharrock analysis.
The Unionists never wanted a negotiated settlement at all. The deposed Unionist Leader Jim Molyneaux complained at the time of the IRA cessation that `the cease-fire had destabilised the situation'. So only the resumption of hostilities could re-establish stability. With the British policy increasingly hostage to the Unionists as a result of the arithmetic of Westminster, the end of the cease-fire was not caused by the failure of the process. From the Unionist point of view the cease-fire was the threat. The end of the cease-fire was the goal. Though denied the prospect of military victory, the end of the peace process - the end of the need for dialogue, the end of the prospect of a negotiated settlement - does not represent political failure, rather it is a triumph. For them it means the continuity of the Six Counties as a political entity and as an integral part of the United Kingdom. That is the Unionists sole reason for being. Though initially wrong footed they have gradually managed throughout the17 months to impose their agenda not only on the British government but on everyone else. Canary Wharf did not make Trimble tremble, on the contrary for him and his confederates one minute past seven on Friday Feb 9 was the climax of 17 months of painstaking work. To para-phrase Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now: "One day the war must end but for now the sound of Semtex signals victory!"
Any doubts on that score were allayed by their barely concealed triumphalist blood lust following the second and third bombs in London. Paisley junior insisted that republicanism `must be cut out of' the body politic. Not you noticed simply its paramilitary manifestation. The rabid-right Tory MP Terry Dicks advocated a "policy of shoot to kill...people have had enough." For OUP Peter Robinson the quarantine of Sinn Fein was not enough; renewing the peace process itself would be a mistake. "The time has come that the whole international community must be prepared to crush the IRA." Andrew Neil agreed: "good will triumphs only if good people are sometimes prepared to be as ruthless as the bad." Tory MP David Wilshire called for an end to compromise."Compromise with evil is neither desirable nor possible,...[the peace process] was an attempt to do a one sided deal with the devil." Clearly for them at least war war was better than jaw jaw.

While Unionist opposition like this was overt, the other decisive influence on the thinking of the government was armed with an identical agenda, but chose as befits its nature to be more covert. For a variety of reasons MI5 had no stomach for the cease-fire either. Indeed the prospect alarmed them greatly. Political considerations apart, the prospect of an end to hostilities was in conflict with their own prospects of continued employment. It has long been recognised that purely selfish considerations can play as much a part in risk assessment by spooks as the loftier ideals of the protection of the state itself. The Bolshevik ransacking and scrutiny of the Tsar's security network revealed evidence of routine disinformation from provocateurs for entirely mercenary motives. As the motto of the American Marines; "Corps, God, Country." confirms, patriotism often comes a poor third to self interest. Any suggestion of loyalty to the government does not, you notice, even make their short list. Organ and function are inseparable terms. Take away from an organ its function and either the organ dies or its function is re-established. In addition any negotiated settlement risked the break up of that state, whose security and well being they are sworn to protect regardless of government policy of the day. What if they too were playing the long ball game?
After the breakdown of the cease-fire, media commentators were clearly shocked that there had been no warning. When Republican spokespersons indicated that the pressure was mounting `security sources' insisted that the cease-fire would hold and blandly dismissed such talk as mere political manoeuvring. The media were reassured. More importantly so were the government. After Canary Wharf, though still puzzled, they simply felt that MI5 were left with egg on their faces. They gave them the benefit of the doubt. They shouldn't have. For there was a precedent. And the egg was on faces other than MI5's.
On September 1 1994 the IRA announced a complete cessation of hostilities. On the anniversary of the cease-fire David Sharrock wrote: "Major could not believe his ears when the announcement came". A senior Irish negotiator vividly remembers the British disbelief. "They couldn't believe they'd get the cease-fire. The problem is now that they can't believe that it could breakdown."
This you remember was the cease-fire Major was given credit for brokering. He didn't even know it was going to happen. The British PM did not know there was going to be a cease-fire, and he did not know that there was not going to be one. Presumably nobody in the British government knew either. But why not? MI5 knew. They just didn't bother to tell him. Indeed the evidence proves that on each occasion they told him the exact opposite. And it was on this information that British policy was based. Major's immediate insistence that the cease-fire must be permanent, when it was, was based on the belief that it was only for three months, did a lot to stifle optimism on the nationalist side. The subsequent preconditions, over the following year and a half, ignored the fact that cease-fires must produce results if they are to last. But Major had no such concerns. It was after all the IRA who had sued for peace. (In November 1993 Patrick Mayhew in an effort to deflect criticism over contacts with Republicans insisted that the IRA had initiated the contact with a communiqué that began: "The conflict is over, but we need your advice on how to bring it to a close." Quite bizarrely Major, repeated this discredited piece of propaganda in his address to the nation - after the Canary Wharf bomb.) The war was over. The British had won. There was no peace process. There was just peace. The IRA and indeed the nationalists were war weary. Regardless of what happened there would be no resumption of violence; it was safe `to make Adams sweat'.
A curious echo of this wishful thinking followed a statement from the IRA in March 1996 that they "had no wish to engage the loyalists militarily." The DUP's Reverend McRea expressed the opinion that this was because the IRA "were all cowards", while a BBC commentator argued that prior to the cease-fire the IRA had been `outgunned'. What he meant by that he explained, was that "the loyalists had killed more people".
On the anniversary of the cease-fire the Independent's David McKittrick wrote: "The entire British apparatus failed to predict the IRA's complete cessation of violence; security chief's readily admit that they were expecting perhaps a three month cease-fire. This same intelligence apparatus is assuring government ministers that Mr Adams has room for manoeuvre". At the beginning of April a Guardian columnist commented "a persuasive security briefing, especially issuing from the painted lips of Dame Stella Rimington, is a difficult thing for an impressionable chap to argue against. If an intelligent lay Health Secretary can find himself powerless to contradict his specialist medical advisers, then what chance is there that a jobbing politician could defy the advice of a security chief who speaks with sweet reason and whose information is, of its very nature, uncontradictable?"
In true Machiavellian fashion while formally reassuring both the liberal media and the fainthearted that Brit procrastination would not prove literally fatal to the peace process, MI5 assets were through friendly channels just as routinely insisting that a breakdown was imminent. Six months ago RA reported a catalogue of disinformation emanating from the Sunday Times. The paper was accused of, "bias and falsification and planting false stories." The accusers were not Republicans but fellow journalists. To some it appeared that The Sunday Times was "part of a conspiracy to derail the peace process". Many of the stories involved `the hard-line breakaway faction', beloved of the Unionists setting impossible demands on the IRA leadership. Another known MI5 asset Ulster Unionist spokesman Ken Maginness stated in June last year that, "the IRA had begun a rolling resumption of violence." After Canary Wharf his first comments literally were: "It gives me no pleasure to say I told you so…" This strategy served a dual purpose. The prospect of imminent breakdown served a useful reminder and justification for the importance placed on the decommissioning argument. It buttressed the Unionist position and encouraged them to sit tight. This in turn allowed Major to stall on talks by, pointing to the Unionists unwillingness to sit down with Sinn Fein. This strategy of tension created the political vacuum essential to the success of MI5 manipulation. And it wasn't only the government who were victims of MI5 deception.
On March 6 allegations regarding MI5 perfidy once again bobbled to the surface. The nature of the allegations this time concerned not policy but culpable homicide. The accusers were not angst ridden liberal journalists but the Metropolitan Police! These remarkable allegations were made to a committee of senior MP's trying to find out why the security service was unable to predict the end of the IRA cease-fire. According to Scotland Yard MI5 discounted three coded warnings about the IRA Docklands bomb more than an hour before it went off. As the warnings were relayed to Scotland Yard, senior officers say they contacted MI5 only to receive a `negative assessment'. Incredulous of MI5's scepticism they sent a sergeant and three constables to clear the streets around South Quay anyway. Two PC's were injured in the explosion an hour later.
That, report though carried in the Evening standard on March 6, almost a month after the explosion, received little media coverage nationally. What would the residents of Canary Wharf have found most incredible had they known? The fact that Scotland Yard sent a total of four officers to evacuate the entire area after three coded bomb warnings; or that MI5, already aware of reports that the IRA had issued a statement ending the cease-fire, told them not to bother? MI5 told John Major that there was no threat to the peace process and it would be tactically astute to make Adams sweat. MI5 told Scotland Yard that there was no bomb. Whatever else they might be accused of there can be no complaints about lack of consistency.

The only problem with the MI5 approach is that it can only be done once. Once bitten twice shy. If, as a Guardian columnist acknowledged "the peace process began because Britain was finding the price of the Ulster conflict too high. The explosions in the city and the threats to Heathrow had even greater implications than the already high and seemingly unending security in Ulster", then Canary Wharf will have been an expensive reminder to the establishment why they agreed to negotiate in the first place.
At this year's Ard Fheis, Sinn Fein's Jim Gibney said; "Last year there was a great sense of expectation of optimism of movement. I felt we had crossed the Rubicon of armed conflict. It seemed to me that, at last, dialogue as the instrument of political change was anchored centre-stage." This was the IRA leadership's analysis as well. They had come to be convinced that the communiqué attributed to them by Mayhew when trying to synchronise the government's public and private positions accurately reflected the Brits own position: "The conflict is over, we need help to bring it to a close." The cease-fire was implemented on the understanding that all-party negotiations would take place with the purpose of accommodating a face saving British withdrawal. But a withdrawal nonetheless. The cease-fire ended when the IRA leadership concluded that the British had in fact reneged on the core reason for holding discussions. And if the British do not want to leave after all, the purpose of negotiations with or without Sinn Fein, with or without preconditions, would mean only the active collaboration of Republicans with the acquiescence of the IRA in securing for the British an internal settlement. This is what Republicans really mean when they accuse the British government of `bad faith'. And until the IRA's `faith' in Britain's intentions is restored, all party talks or not, the cease-fire won't be.
From September 1994 to February 1996 Britain's policy intent was, as a Guardian columnist remarked, "frustratingly ambiguous. The signals conflict - doubtless designedly so on occasions. Sometimes the emphasis is on politics, at other times it is on security. The connection between the two is arbitrarily and inconsistently made. Ask yourself what this country's policy aim over Northern Ireland is and even now the answer is opaque."
The signals conflict only because the aims conflict. The government has one policy, the Unionists and security advisers another. During the period of the cease-fire British utterances were characterised by fudge and indecision. Now that the cease-fire is over the statements remain cryptic, mirroring the situation behind the scenes. The political language used is as George Orwell once remarked, "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an impression of solidity to pure wind." The government give the impression of a side stalling for time - while losing. Sooner or later, Major or his successor must come to the realisation that the right-wing and the defence are not working off the same menu. Even then, how not to be there without being seen to have left will remain the conundrum of British politics.