I note that the Republican Party platform includes a few words of support for the Belfast “Good Friday” Agreement of 1998. Now, it is too much to hope that, in an election season, Americans can be persuaded to think for long about a place as inconsequential as Ireland. Still I believe we should spare a thought for the current Prime Minister of that country, Mr. Bertie Ahern, who is caught in a nasty predicament. Not that it matters to anyone over here; only that it is illustrative of the kinds of issues that vex the leaders of democratic nations in the early 21st century. Let us begin at the beginning.
The bold lads of the Irish Republican Army are not above financing their operations with the occasional robbery. They sometimes choose targets in the Irish Republic itself for these little fund-raisers. The Irish constabulary, the Garda Siochána (“GAR-da show-CAH-na”), are less numerous and less well-trained than those in Ulster, the courts easier to corrupt and the jails more comfortable. In June 1996 an IRA gang shot two officers of the Garda who were escorting a post office van in the village of Adare, County Limerick. One of the officers, Jerry McCabe, died on the spot. It was cold-blooded murder; but the four killers could be convicted only of manslaughter because, prior to the trial, all the witnesses were intimidated into silence. (One key witness accepted an 18-month sentence for contempt of court rather than give evidence.)
Now, under the terms of the Belfast Agreement,
Both Governments will put in place mechanisms to provide for an accelerated programme for the release of prisoners, including transferred prisoners, convicted of scheduled offences in Northern Ireland or, in the case of those sentenced outside Northern Ireland, similar offences (referred to hereafter as qualifying prisoners).
More than 400 prisoners have been freed under this clause, many of them guilty of far worse crimes than the shooting of Garda McCabe. Gerry Adams, the IRA’s principal front man, has now demanded that McCabe’s killers, too, be released, claiming — very plausibly, so far as I can see — that their case is encompassed by the above language. This has put Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern in a nasty quandary, and produced some very odd bedfellows on both sides of the Irish Channel. Most citizens of the Republic — 81 per cent in a telephone poll conducted by the Dublin Sunday Independent — do not think the McCabe killers should be released. In Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, on the other hand, there is a strong feeling to the contrary. British people take the point of view that: “We have had to suffer the anger and indignation of watching the murderers of our people let loose; now the people of the Republic should suffer the same.” To make the thing even more, well, Irish, Tim Pat Coogan, the historian and ideologist of the IRA, has split with Adams, coming out against release, on the grounds that McCabe’s killers did not follow “proper” IRA rules in carrying out their mission.
Americans generally do not understand that the Irish Republic and the IRA are bitter enemies. To a diehard Republican, the true Republic, Poblacht na hÉireann (pronounced “POE-blah ne-RON”) will come into existence only when the island is unified. The nation of which Bertie Ahern is Prime Minister is a false nation, the creation of quislings and traitors. In speaking among themselves — like the Palestinians, they have a different vocabulary for public consumption — Republicans refer to it as “the 26 counties.” For the fiercer ones, indeed, even this is insufficiently slighting: they say “West Britain”! This loathing is largely reciprocated. People in the Republic do not like the IRA, which they associate with the savagery of the Irish Civil War, 1922-27. They especially do not like the way the IRA has been able to corrupt Irish public life and the administration of justice. Witness intimidation like that in the McCabe case is normal when IRA robberies and killings reach the courts; and though IRA activity is technically illegal in the Republic, IRA prisoners are kept in luxurious conditions, lacking nothing but their freedom, because a prison guard who refuses anything to an IRA man knows very well what he, and his family, may expect.
Like much else in Irish life, though, these attitudes are shifting. The Civil War is now a distant memory; and in any case the detestation that Irish people feel for IRA methods has always been qualified somewhat by their approval of IRA goals. As Conor Cruise O’Brien has expressed it, when an Irishman hears of an IRA atrocity his first words are: “What a terrible thing!” Behind those words, though, unspoken but irrepressible, comes the thought: “Yet, after all, they are fighting for our lost land.” Following the Belfast Agreement and the obvious desire of the British to get rid of Ulster by any means that can be devised, the decades of IRA terror are beginning to seem justified. Not only were they fighting for “our lost land,” they may actually have won it.
Nothing succeeds like success; and while you cannot vote for the IRA (it is an illegal organization in the Republic), you can vote for its Sinn Féin front men. Polls show that more Irish people are now inclined to do so. That “more” is relative: SF is a fringe party in the Republic. Under the system of proportional representation, however, they have one seat in the Irish parliament; and if polls can be depended on, this may rise to four at the next election. That still leaves them a fringe party, and as such they do not have to bother much about broad public opinion; but proportional representation demands a great deal of horse-trading with such parties before a majority can be formed for governing, so that Gerry Adams may soon be a force in the land. Will he throw his lot in with Bertie Ahern’s party — the more “Republican” of Ireland’s two major parties? Only, says Gerry, if the IRA gets its way on prisoner releases.
So shed a tear for Bertie Ahern. If he lets the McCabe killers out, he faces the anger of the Irish people and a revolt by his own police force (who, for obvious reasons, are even more strongly opposed to release than the general public). If he does not let them out, he faces charges of hypocrisy from the British and the Ulstermen: “Oh, so killers of British policemen can walk, but killers of Irish policemen stay in jail?” He also loses the support of Gerry Adams, which he may soon need in order to stay in power. Present signals are that Bertie is deperately trying to punt the whole thing off into the courts. Meanwhile, in the North, the last of the terrorist prisoners are being released, while the quid for this disturbing quo — decommissioning of paramilitary arms — has slipped off everybody’s agenda. That was in the Belfast Agreement, too; but nobody talks about it any more.