BELFAST — Northern Ireland has greeted the announcement that the "provisional" Irish Republican Army is dismantling its weapons with a mixture of relief and doubt.
There is relief that at last the IRA, the paramilitary wing of Irish republicanism, which advocates Irish unity, was turning from violence toward constitutional politics. But there is also doubt that this could really be true. The mood was well captured by the Belfast morning paper, the News Letter, which ran a banner headline playing off a Hemingway novel: "A Farewell to Arms?"
Having covered the agonizing Irish story for 30 years, I felt relieved that the worst may now be over. During this period, I have interviewed many Protestant and Roman Catholic victims of violence, including Gordon Wilson, who survived an IRA bomb in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on Nov. 8, 1987.
He emerged from the rubble to grieve over his daughter Marie, then 20, who died in the blast. In a BBC radio interview that evening, he forgave her murderers, uttering words that were among the noblest in Irish history. Later on, he courageously met IRA leaders face to face at a secret location in Donegal, Ireland. I like to think that his integrity, and the intensity of his suffering, helped start a process that persuaded at least some of the men and women of violence to turn to politics. Sadly, my recollections are shared by thousands of others who have lost friends and loved ones in the conflict.
Despite such suffering, the Provisional IRA has long been battle-hardened. But there are many other reasons why it has decided to put some of its weapons beyond use. One is sheer war-weariness. Since 1969, more than 3,600 people have been killed and many more injured. By the early 1990s, there was an unspoken admission that the British and the IRA had fought each other to a standstill in a war neither side could win outright.
Complex talks began in the early 1990s between the British and Irish Governments and led indirectly to broadly based talks later on, involving the majority Unionists, who favor retaining the link with Britain, and Sinn Fein, the political wing of Irish republicanism. These talks culminated in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which, historically, provided a political breakthrough, but demanded concessions from all sides.
The Unionists agreed to share power with republicans, but the main stumbling block was the IRA's refusal to decommission its weapons - a step it regarded as surrender. The Unionists withdrew from government with Sinn Fein, and the process looked as if it were collapsing, until it was rescued by the IRA's decommissioning, announced Oct. 23.
Already, the Unionists have returned to the government, and the peace process looks to be remaining on track.
Another major factor leading to IRA decommissioning was the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington. Almost overnight, terrorism became a particularly dirty word in Irish America, where the IRA had raised large amounts of money, and especially in the White House, which in recent years has played a crucial role in the Northern Ireland peace process. In addition, three Irishmen with links to Sinn Fein had been apprehended some time previously by the authorities in Bogotá, Colombia, after visiting with Colombian FARC guerrillas - a development that rankled the US government.
Sinn Fein, anxious to retain American support, emphasized the primacy of the political process, and the provisional IRA acted swiftly and strategically by getting rid of part of its arsenal. Without Sept. 11 and the embarrassment of Bogotá, the IRA decommissioning would not have come soon enough to save the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Now peace is more assured, though there are still stumbling blocks. There may be defections by militant republicans who want to continue the armed conflict. On the other side, the Unionists are politically divided between those who favor the Good Friday Agreement and those who oppose it. The latest IRA moves will strengthen the pro-agreement Unionists. On Saturday, David Trimble received a solid two-thirds backing from the executive of his official Unionist party. However, he still has to win reelection as first minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In Northern Ireland, most of us are foot-weary and soul-tired of being led up false alleyways by our political leaders. Many people have seen so many false dawns that they are wary when another light appears on the horizon. However, the feeling is different this time, and though there are many challenges ahead, there is a belief now that a lasting peace may be possible. At least people are smiling a bit more. There is also an awareness that if this peace holds, Northern Ireland could prove to be a model for other societies in conflict, including the Middle East.
William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet and Nobel Prize-winner for literature, once noted memorably that in Ireland, "Peace comes dropping slow." The long-suffering people of Northern Ireland know only too well how slow it has been. But they are grateful - and hopeful - that peace may be starting to drop at last.
Alf McCreary, a longtime Monitor contributor, is a freelance author and journalist.