13 January 2006

'Hibernating' IRA to melt away as peace breaks out

Belfast Telegraph

Gerry Adams once boasted of the IRA: "They haven't gone away, you know". However, in a few weeks the IMC will produce its latest account on the progress of Provo disbandment. Security expert Brian Rowan reports on what it will say

13 January 2006

The men of the Independent Monitoring Commission have been in Belfast this week as part of the most important phase of work they have so far been asked to undertake.

At the end of this month, the commissioners – Lord Alderdice, John Grieve, Joe Brosnan and Dick Kerr – will produce their latest assessment on the IRA.

They will be in Belfast on January 30 and 31 to finalise that report.

It will not be a magic wand that makes the IRA disappear and sources are dismissive of suggestions that it will be an assessment that gives the republican organisation "a clean bill of health".

What the Commission will report on is an organisation in "transition" - an organisation that has "fundamentally changed in its mode of operation".

The IMC is listening to and will be reporting on "all of the complexities of that transition process". And the tone of this latest assessment will be that things are "heading in the right direction".

It would be unrealistic – unfair even – to expect anything more definitive at this stage.

The IRA is more than 30 years old in terms of its most recent existence, and 30 weeks have not yet passed since its statement of July last year formally ending its "armed campaign".

"This is not an army that you can give a demob suit and a cheque and tell it to go home," one source said.

What that means is that the IRA is still out there. It recently issued a New Year statement. It still has a structure, including a leadership, and it is, to quote a recent intelligence assessment, an organisation in "hibernation".

The IRA in its new mode is waiting for political progress and for the proof that there is a viable alternative to its "armed struggle".

It is a very different organisation - different because of the activities it has ceased and because of the decommissioning acts of last September.

These were hugely significant developments, but the DUP is not yet ready to do political business with Sinn Fein, although there now seems to be an inevitability that business will eventually be done.

The question is no longer if but when.

In the meantime, the security landscape is changing - an indication that at the most senior levels of the police and the Army, there is a belief that the republican "war" is over.

When it completes its latest report on the IRA and other paramilitary groups, the IMC will then turn its attention to demilitarisation or normalisation, as others prefer to call it.

At the end of February it will give an assessment of developments - a report on progress measured against the current terrorist threat.

The Army here in conjunction with the Ministry of Defence is finalising plans to end the decades-long Operation Banner.

The target date for that is August 2007, and, between now and then, there will be a further significant shrinking of troop numbers - from 9,500 down to 5,000.

Another two dozen bases will close. No more than 14 "core" sites will be needed to house the soldiers who stay in "peacetime" Northern Ireland.

And that means that over the next 18 months, the Army will close 26 "campaign" bases.

The fine details of that plan - the "sequencing" of those closures - is now very close to being finalised.

It will be published soon, but it is not yet clear if it will be ready in time for inclusion in that IMC assessment in February, although one imagines that the Army would want to see it there.

When it does emerge, what the plan will show us will be the final shape of the "peacetime" garrison - a picture of the planned army presence beyond Operation Banner.

So, there will be significant progress to report in those IMC assessments in both January and February.

The stories to tell will be of an IRA that is melting away and of sweeping security changes as part of a "war" that is ending.

Then the commissioners of the IMC will be back in April to write and speak again on the world of the paramilitaries.

It will then be nine months since the IRA statement of last July, and there will have been a further significant period of time to judge how that organisation is evolving.

As one source put it: "The more time you've got, the more you can point to the changes."

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