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Whatever Happened to the IRA?

6 minute read
Robert Baer

Spend Easter Sunday in Belfast and you have to wonder what happened to the IRA.

The first time I visited Belfast, in 1977, it was a city under siege. Stores were closed. British bunkers protected by anti-rocket meshing sat on most intersections. Police and military patrols were the only sign of life on the street. The Europa, which had to be the most bombed hotel in the world, was a sandbagged fortress.

On paper at least, the 1998 agreement between the IRA and the British government was what started to put an end to the violent conflict. But at the bottom of it the IRA lost the will to fight.

This year’s IRA parade on Easter morning was one of the most anodyne, sentimentalized events I’ve ever seen, made up mostly of little boys and old men not even bothering to pose as veterans. A half a dozen marchers carried wooden rifles, but the Republican banners were furled — on orders from the IRA’s leadership. Armored police Land Rovers were parked inconspicuously on side streets, but they were there to protect the marchers from Protestants rather than keep a watch on them.

Any lingering doubt I had that the conflict was truly over disappeared when I saw the Europa. There wasn’t even a car bomb barrier out front. The place was full of families, many of them American, coming home for Easter. Ex-IRA foot soldiers out front offered driving tours of the old IRA battlefields. Who would ever have thought Northern Ireland would be turned into a theme park?

The sharp contrast of old and new Belfast raised one overriding question: Did Northern Ireland’s Catholics get anything they wanted? Northern Ireland, after all, still belongs to the Queen. I asked a former IRA car bomber. “We got absolutely nothing,” Marion said. “We were betrayed.”

Marion joined the IRA when she was seventeen, showing up at an IRA “call house” every day after school. She was never sure what the night’s mission would be, but often as not it involved delivering a car bomb. She was (and still is) beautiful, and easily passed through the British checkpoints. “You never forget the smell of sodium nitro benzene” — the improvised explosive used by the IRA in the early days. “It smelled like marzipan.”

She eventually went to jail after being caught parking a car bomb in London, but was released under an amnesty. Did she ever think of going back to war? “No. It’s finished.” Marion was convinced the IRA rank and file were betrayed by its leadership, and it had all been a waste of lives. She now is married and working as a nurse.

I asked a former IRA soldier, a bomb maker, if Marion was right. “You can’t know for sure,” he said. “They wrongly called an end to the conflict in 1962.” He agreed that no one was satisfied with the power-sharing agreement that technically gives the province’s Catholics as much say in government as the Protestants. And one of the biggest problems for Northern Irish Catholics is unemployment; much of the lost generation only knows how to fight.

Who knows, one day they could pick up a gun. Still, unless there is some fire under the lake I couldn’t see, this conflict is over. The violence wore everyone down.

But it wasn’t just in Northern Ireland that there was an end to violence. I was in Palermo on Good Friday and met the city’s police chief. It’s been 15 years since the Sicilian Mafia has been blowing up judges and prosecutors. Is the violence over? “If I dare say it, it is,” the police chief said. “The Mafia figured out it just wasn’t worth it, the killing and bombing, drawing the fury of Rome.”

To be sure, the Mafia still runs Sicily. But like the IRA it is an anodyne force. It is moving into white-collar crime — where the real money is and the sentences are lighter.

It’s all good news. But does it carry any hope for the continuing problems in the Middle East, especially with Iraq on fire?

Before I left Beirut last week I sat down with a member of Hizballah’s politburo. He didn’t look anything like the old Hizballah I knew from the ’80s. For a start he asked to meet in the posh Vendome Hotel, in the rooftop restaurant that has a commanding view over the Corniche and the Mediterranean. Clean shaven and carrying a new leather briefcase, he offered me a Cuban cigar as soon as he sat down. He had just come from a class teaching economics.

We started off talking about the Hizballah military commander Imad Mughniyah, who was assassinated in Damascus on February 12. “Yes, indeed,” he said in fluent English, “Hizballah will absolutely have to respond. But not now. There is too much too lose.”

He added that he thought that it was unfortunate the West focuses only on Hizballah’s military wing. “Can’t anyone see Hizballah is just as much about an economic revolution as it is fighting Israel?”

That day I had made a windscreen tour of Beirut’s Shi’a suburbs. There was construction everywhere, rebuilding after the 2006 34-day war between Hizballah and Israel. Seven- and eight-story apartment buildings were nearly completed, as were the flyovers and cratered roads. It was all paid for by Iran. Anecdotally at least, there apparently was little or no corruption.

The politburo member asked, “People in the Middle East cannot help but compare what we have accomplished in Beirut with America’s failed reconstruction of Iraq.” He said that it is a lesson to countries on the brink of failure, like Egypt, where so much of Western aid has ended up in the pockets of Mubarak’s family.

I conceded the point but asked him, What about Israel? How did wiping it off the map fit in with Hizballah’s master plan to become a legitimate political, social and economic force in the Middle East?

“There’s one thing you must understand: Hizballah will never be more Palestinian than the Palestinians.” Elaborating, he said that Hizballah, as well as Iran, will accept whatever settlement the Palestinians will accept, including the existence of Israel.

This will be cold comfort to Israel as it watches Iran smuggle advanced rockets into Lebanon that now supposedly can hit almost every part of the country. Chances are there will be a regional war before anyone is ready to sit down and seriously discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Still, this Easter I came home with a glimmer of hope: at some point, eventually, violence, whether it is the Mafia’s or the IRA’s, does burn itself out. People get tired of fighting, they settle for less, or put down their guns when they realize it just isn’t worth it.

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