In the grim humor of Belfast, the latest form of punishment beating by the Irish Republican Army is called “a Padre Pio.” The victim is told to clasp his hands in prayer and he is then shot through both palms. It is an economical form of wounding someone since one bullet produces two wounds. Padre Pio, of course, was the saintly Italian priest whose hands bore the stigmata. These are wounds in the palms of the hands like those of Christ where the nails pierced Him. In addition to this, Padre Pio was rumored to be able to see directly into the souls of those who sought confession or his counsel. More than one pious Catholic of my acquaintance remembered a previous engagement when invited to an audience with him.
Today the British and Irish governments would dearly like to imitate Pio’s powers of spiritual insight as readily as the IRA has mocked his imitation of Christ. For the IRA has been hinting that it might resume the “armed struggle”–that is, murdering and wounding people on a non-discriminatory basis rather than confining such tactics to rebellious and dissident Catholics in the ghetto–and the two governments want to know whether they really mean it.
What began this crisis was a common or garden-variety bank robbery in which the IRA stole almost $50 million from the Northern Bank. At first the police and the two governments were reluctant to accuse the IRA of involvement since that would further undermine the already collapsing “peace process.” Gradually, however, the evidence became too clear to ignore. Of course, the IRA denied everything–but then, the IRA had originally denied that the three terrorists training the FARC in Colombia were their guys. They now wage an international campaign for the release of men they admit to be their volunteers.
Eventually, the truth could no longer be fudged. Both governments, the police, all other parties, and even the official body that monitors the cease fire declared that there was overwhelming evidence that the IRA had robbed the bank.
In itself a mere bank robbery–even one that involved taking temporary hostages like this one–might not have created a full-blown political crisis. After all, everyone knows that during “the Troubles” the IRA, as well as planting bombs and murdering policemen, also built up a lucrative series of gambling, smuggling, and protection rackets. Boys will be boys.
But this robbery came on top of a series of actions that had caused the two governments and all the democratic Northern Irish parties to question whether the IRA had really abandoned the gun and embraced democratic politics. These actions included the IRA’s failure to disarm completely and publicly after eleven years of promising to do so, its refusal to declare a final end to the guerrilla war, and just recently its brutal imposition of the Padre Pio on three Catholic youths for–essentially–not showing local IRA chieftains the proper respect.
The robbery itself was the final straw that broke the back of the peace process. It removed any early prospect of restoring the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive and assembly that had been suspended because the unionist parties refused to share power with an IRA that was literally sticking to its guns.
Last week the Provisional IRA Army Council reacted by issuing a long and bellicose statement. It reminded people that the IRA had ended a cease-fire before; it accused the two governments and “rejectionist” unionists of seeking to humiliate republicans; and it made vaguely menacing noises about protecting the rights of “our support base.”
Given the 30-odd years of “the Troubles” in which the IRA killed most of their 3,300 fatal victims, these threats might be expected to arouse alarm in Dublin and Whitehall. Instead the mood is relatively relaxed. Analysts calculate that the IRA may huff and puff, but that it won’t re-embark on a full-scale guerrilla war.
Underlying this calculation are three arguments:
First, public opinion in Northern Ireland–Catholic as well as Protestant–is determined to keep the present peace. Neither community would tolerate any resumption of terrorism. Both would support a ruthless campaign of official repression if the IRA started bombing again.
Second, the IRA itself is still dangerous, but it is no longer a hard-edged guerrilla force. It is a rich, fat, lazy, middle-aged mafia raking in millions of dollars from the rackets. If London and Dublin continue to turn a blind eye to control of the Catholic ghettoes–as they have done to date–its present leadership will not wish to put its highly agreeable lifestyle at risk.
Third, in the post-9/11 world, Washington and the entire West would support the British and Irish governments in a crackdown on IRA terrorism. And with even Libya anxious to be back in the international community, the IRA would be without friends internationally.
For all these reasons, the politicians tell themselves, the IRA will go to the brink of war–and then halt.
These are all plausible arguments believed by hard-headed people. But some caution is necessary:
The IRA has always been contemptuous of public opinion when it has calculated that murder was necessary to force political concessions. And the London and Dublin governments have been all too ready to appease terrorism when it has taken place. So the IRA might well presume that a modest investment in bombing Belfast or the London suburbs would pay significant political dividends.
London and Dublin should therefore now be making absolutely clear that any resumption of terror would mean the permanent exclusion of Sinn Fein-IRA from government and the loss of all the concessions already granted them.
But there is no sign of such resolve: Both governments are crossing their fingers and closing their eyes. Gerry Adams has even taken to taunting the governments–and especially Irish premier Bertie Ahern–with the question of why they don’t take legal action against him if there is evidence that he was party to a serious crime.
Of course, he could ask the same question about his part in crimes far worse than robbery. And the fact that they take no action in any of these cases is an eloquent commentary on their determination to stick to appeasing the IRA whatever it does. Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are committed to cracking down on terrorism everywhere in the world except Britain and Ireland.
But George Bush is another matter. No one supposes that he is firmly committed to appeasing terrorists in Ireland, Britain, or anywhere else. His warnings carry conviction. He could convey to the once and future terrorists that they will face the full wrath of the American government and people if they veer even a millimeter from the path of peaceful politics. And he could do so by a gesture that is simple but as eloquent as the Blarney Stone.
St. Patrick’s Day will occur, as usual, on March 17th. It is now an established tradition for the president to welcome Irish politicians of all stripes to the White House for an ecumenical celebration. In recent years Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president, has been among the guests.
To warn Sinn Fein-IRA (and their Protestant equivalent, the Progressive Unionist Party, which is likewise linked to violence) of the consequences of threatening or employing terrorism, President Bush should this year explicitly dis-invite Adams, Martin McGuinness, and other prominent Sinn Fein figures and their counterparts in the PUP. He should invite all the other party leaders on both sides of the Irish border to the St. Patrick’s celebrations. He should additionally order the cancellation of the visa waivers that allow Adams et al to enter the U.S. He should make clear that they will not be able to enter the U.S. again until they and their colleagues have finally and permanently abandoned the gun. And he should make clear why he is doing all these things. Neither London or Dublin will really want to issue such a clear warning. They have grown accustomed to appeasing terrorism in Ireland. They are already urging Washington to proceed with St. Paddy’s as usual. They shrink from firmness.
But we have to rely on firm government to deter terrorism until we can look, like Padre Pio, into the soul of the IRA. And even then we might be wise to avoid the spiritual risks of seeing things too terrible for humankind and of shrinking back half-maddened with a cry of “the horror, the horror.”