The Madman theory of the peace process

My latest thoughts on the peace process from this week’s Irish World:

IRA pay the price for showing their hand

by Tom Griffin, 25 February 2005

Richard Nixon used to call it the ‘madman theory’. During the cold war, the Americans had a problem. In order put pressure on the Soviet Union, they had to convince their opponents that they were prepared to use nuclear weapons. However, given that the Russians were in a position to retaliate in kind, any nuclear attack would have been totally irrational.

Therefore, to achieve a strong negotiating position, the Americans had to convince the Russians that they were crazy. If the Russians believed the Americans would act rationally, their threats would be seen to be empty and the US position would be correspondingly weaker.

A similar situation may now be underway in the Middle East. In order to pressure Iran over its nuclear programme, the US is threatening an attack even though its forces are already overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this instance, the US has the advantage that the Bush administration can create an uncomfortably convincing impression of irrationality.

The madman theory may also applicable on a smaller scale to the current crisis in the peace process.

The Republican Movement is in one sense in an equivalent position to the US in the Cold War. The Republican ‘nuclear option’, the one that its opponents most want to avoid, is a return to war by the IRA.

However, as with the Cold War analogy, this would also be the worst possible outcome for republicans. It would mean a halt to the political growth of Sinn Fein, a security crackdown in republican areas, and would if anything reinforce partition.

A return to war is only a realistic possibility if one assumes that the IRA will act irrationally, that hardline militarists will react disproportionately to any perceived provocation.

If the Republican Movement is united behind a leadership committed to a political strategy, then it is likely to avoid a return to conflict at almost all costs.

Paradoxically, a divided and belligerent republican movement is in a stronger negotiating position than a united and disciplined one.

The key question for the British and Irish Governments is which picture is the true one. Should they make concessions to strengthen the republican leadership, or should they apply pressure, safe in the knowledge that republicans will respond rationally to preserve their place in the political process.

Early on in the peace process, the two Governments applied the former strategy. Both Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have admitted to tolerating a level of IRA violence in order to keep the peace process on track.

In both cases, the admission came in the course of a shift to the latter strategy. This came from Blair in his Belfast Harbour Commissioners speech in October 2002, and from Ahern in a Dail debate in January.

In his speech then, the Taoiseach blamed the IRA for a number of previous bank robberies, as well as the Northern bank job. He admitted that the Governments took those robberies ‘coolly enough.’

So what’s changed? The Taoiseach himself said that it was not a question of the size of the Northern Bank robbery.

“What I find really offensive,” he told the Dail, “is that there was an ability to turn off all punishment beatings while negotiations were in progress but as soon as the negotiations failed there was a string of them – they are again a nightly occurrence. I will give Sinn Fein full marks for discipline, but not for anything else.”

This is a very telling statement in terms of the madman theory. If the Taoiseach is right, then the IRA remains a cohesive organisation acting in a disciplined way to further the political aims of the Republican Movement. If that is the case, then the threat of a return to violence is an empty one and the Governments do not need to pull their punches over IRA activity.

Where does the Taoiseach’s confidence derive from? Perhaps from the fact that in those negotiations back in December, the IRA had agreed to go into ‘a new mode’ effectively disbanding the organisation, as part of a comprehensive deal with the DUP.

The deal fell through, but republicans had apparently shown enough of their hand to convince Ahern that the IRA could be delivered.

If the IRA could be disbanded for the sake of a republican political strategy, it cannot credibly threaten to launch a campaign that would be a disaster for that strategy. There is nothing to stop the Governments from taking a tough line on IRA activity.

It’s not surprising that Sinn Fein should have been caught out by this turn of events. Having made such a momentous offer, they might reasonably have expected that the DUP would take the blame for the failure of negotiations. It hasn’t worked out like that.

Ironically, the ultimate source of the biggest crisis in the peace process in a decade, may be the fact that the IRA is on the point of disbandment.

This article is also archived at TomGriffin.Info






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